Brentwood, Tenn. – The Brentwood Fire and Rescue Department launched its drone or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) program in 2018 with one drone and one pilot. Three years later, the program, under the leadership of Lieutenant Jay Williams has grown to the use of four drones and ten drone pilots which are all licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Brentwood’s drone program was one of the first to be developed in the state by a municipality and today one of the largest. The program was created because City leaders saw the advantage of staying on top of modern technology available to first responders. The Brentwood City Commission has been supportive of the drone program from the very beginning. Fire Chief Brian Goss said, “shortly after being elected to the City Commission, Commissioner Mark Gorman encouraged leveraging the use of technology to enhance our response capabilities and specifically mentioned the use of drones.” Commissioner Gorman said, “anytime we can use technology across departments to save time, have a positive return on investment, and help keep city staff safer, it’s a win-win for everyone involved. I am thankful the City has resources and staff willing to learn how to use this helpful technology.”
To respond to anyone suggesting drones may be viewed as toys, Lt. Williams says, “we are not out there just playing with toys. These drones are amazing and useful tools and are an extension of the many tools we already have on our fire trucks.” Although the drone program is managed specifically by the Fire Department, it benefits many other city departments. “If there is a missing child, we are able to get up in the air in less than a minute and provide some sort of visual. We oversee making sure the City has aerial overwatch, or a view from up above and that could be thermal imaging, crowd control or surveillance from a vehicle crash scene,” said Lt. Williams.
The drone pilots have provided mapping services to the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Department and aerial damage assessments following the March flooding in Brentwood which was instrumental to helping the Brentwood Planning and Codes Department document damage for FEMA. Drone images have also been helpful with tracking construction projects like the one on Sunset Road, the new Brentwood Police Department Headquarters, and a sidewalk project currently underway in the Raintree subdivision. Most recently Lt. Williams and his team provided an extra set of eyes for crowd control at the Red, White and Boom July 4th event at Crockett Park. “In the record-breaking crowd of more than twelve thousand, it’s very helpful to have a bird’s eye view of such a large and dense crowd of people,” said Lt. Scott Graham who oversaw safety operations for the Brentwood Police Department at the July 4th event. While operators were flying, the live stream could be viewed by emergency managers, like Lt. Graham off site.
The Brentwood drone team has been able to help agencies outside of Brentwood as mutual aid has also been requested most recently during a hazardous materials spill on Interstate 40 in Cheatham County. “We were able to park ourselves a mile away, fly the drone and read a temperature gauge on the tanker to determine whether the temperature was rising or falling.” Lt. Williams explained that it determined how emergency responders should safely proceed to clean up thousands of gallons of spilled chemical.
When arriving on the scene of a house fire, drones can more quickly survey how to best fight the fire from thermal imaging that shows firefighters where the hottest part of the fire is located. Fire Engineer and drone pilot Caleb Lovett recalls one house fire with a report that the chimney may have been on fire. “The thermal camera was used to look directly at the heat signature and determine it was all isolated to the chimney and had not spread to the house,” said Lovett. This is helpful to allow firefighters to have a bigger picture of the fire, especially on steep rooflines that are on Brentwood homes. “We have live video feeds that are set up so the fire can be viewed at the command post,” added Lovett.
Looking to the future for additional uses of the technology is what keeps Lt. Williams excited. “This program keeps evolving and I am excited about the future,” Williams said as he discussed the future possibility of automatic drone deployment. “Someday in the future, I would hope an incident would happen and a drone would automatically take off, fly to the incident, give us the traffic conditions on the way to the incident, hover around the incident and give us within minutes, an aerial view of what we are working with. That will save time, money, and most importantly, possibly lives.”