By Conor McCue

DENVER (CBS4) – Drones continue to be a more common tool for emergency response agencies, and now the Denver Fire Department is getting in on the action.

According to Captain Greg Pixley, the idea of using drones came up about five years ago. Now, after years of research, planning, and training, the department’s first ever drone operations team is beginning to respond to emergency calls.

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On April 8, the team joined more than a dozen other crews in responding to a two-alarm fire at Odom Memorial Church of God in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood. While crews were quick to get the fire under control, the drone team was able to spot a hotspot before it flared up more.

“We were able to save the property, increase our firefighters’ capabilities and safety, and also use this technology that we have been working on for over five years,” Ct. Greg Pixley said.

Denver’s drone operations team is made up of 12 people, 5 of whom are FAA certified pilots. At their disposal are three drones with regular and infrared cameras, as well as a van that can display the video on several screens and act as a command post.

“We can look at a fire situation and determine where the hotspot is. We can go to a water rescue situation to determine maybe there is an individual trapped on a rock. We can use the drones in a hazardous materials situation,” Pixley said.

Pixley says what the drones improve the most is safety for the crews and the community.

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“That is one of the biggest strengths that we have with this program,” he said. “Our firefighters will be able to recognize where dangerous situations are that they were unable to from the ground level or from the inside of a building.”

(credit: CBS)

Other metro area agencies have used drones for years. Just in the last two months, we’ve seen them used in all kinds of scenarios, including fires, the Boulder shooting, and a drowning at Cherry Creek Reservoir.

For Denver, the trials and errors of other departments will be valuable in making the program as beneficial as possible.

“We’re using their experiences,” Pixley said. “We’re using the best-case scenario where people have already gone through some of the struggles that we will be able to learn from.”

The department says the drones and the technology to stream and store video are paid for through grant funding and other opportunities. Right now, DFD is working to expand the team and staff it 24/7.

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“Our opportunities with our drone program are really limitless,” Pixley said.

Conor McCue