MAURICE RIVER TOWNSHIP — Joe Sterling has spent 36 years as a volunteer with the Leesburg Fire Department, but he’s recently taken on a new title — the township’s very own licensed drone pilot.
The township is the first in Cumberland County to have a drone team ready to respond to emergencies. The $9,400 DJI Inspire 1, complete with a thermal-imaging camera, will make responding to emergencies a whole lot easier and safer.
The drone can be deployed for active-shooter situations, hazmat, fires and woodland and marine rescues, going where first responders can’t to get a bird’s-eye view of an emergency.
“With this model here, it allows you to do a lot of different things with it,” Sterling said, pointing to the different parts of the black-and-white remote-controlled aircraft.
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A remote-controlled helicopter enthusiast, Sterling spent more than a year studying for his license to fly the drone through the Federal Aviation Administration, and the team worked together to pick the drone that would best suit the township.
While Sterling is Maurice River’s only drone pilot, if there’s an emergency, the township can defer to State Police, which has 31 pilots, or the county Sheriff’s Office, which has pilots in training, said Gordon Gross, emergency management coordinator in the municipality, adding he is also studying to take the test to become a licensed drone pilot.
And Sterling’s drone is smart. It’s programmed to come “home,” or back to where it took off, if there’s a disruption between the drone and the pilot’s controller during the flight. It has the capability to stream the video shot from the “belly camera,” or the camera mounted to the bottom of the center, live to Facebook and YouTube. It also has a strobe light so it can be deployed at night and a drop system, which allows the drone to carry and then drop up to 7 pounds.
“So if you’re out in the water, we can drop you a couple life jackets,” said Gross, adding they could also drop a radio or even a trauma bag, whatever is needed depending on the situation.
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The drone will help keep firefighters safe while helping snuff out flames more efficiently, Leesburg Fire Chief Walter Hughes said. The thermal-imaging camera feeds back to a monitor showing where hot spots are so officials on the ground can redirect hoses, as well as the firefighters in any burning structure.
But the drone can also be deployed before an emergency happens, Mayor Patti Gross said. The team used it to take video of the East Point beach to document its condition before Hurricane Michael made landfall in Florida last week.
Gross said the township didn’t receive federal funding after Hurricane Sandy, which hit in October 2012, decimating many of New Jersey’s shore communities and damaging 42 structures in the municipality alone.
With the drone footage, it may be easier to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency grants, by showing before-and-after video of the shoreline.
“This is about being proactive,” Gross said, adding the new technology may even help draw in the next generation of first responders. “Our guys like to stay one step ahead of things. This is the future.”