MECCA asks Mon County Commission for $26K to upgrade drones

MORGANTOWN — With unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, playing an ever-increasing role with first responders and emergency management, Monongalia County is looking to upgrade its eyes in the sky.

Director Jimmy Smith of the Monongalia County Office of Emergency Management/MECCA 911 recently asked the Monongalia County Commission for $26,000 to purchase a two-drone, public safety package through DSLRPros.

Deputy Director Harold Sperringer explained that the agency is taking steps to secure the appropriate waivers from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which would make Monongalia County third in the state to receive such credentials behind Kanawha and Cabell counties.

“There are benefits from drones in every aspect of public safety — fire, police, EMS, emergency management, missing persons,” Sperringer said, explaining drones outfitted with FLIR, or forward looking infrared cameras, have become an effective tool in fighting fires.

“With all the smoke, the size of the fire and the building, the drone can go up and pinpoint every hotspot. They also find people inside the fire scene that you can’t see through the smoke, whether it’s a down firefighter or victims,” Sperringer said.

Whereas recreational drone pilots face few restrictions, flying for profit or for an agency requires a drone pilot license through the FAA, which Sperringer has already obtained.

He said the waiver process through the FAA can take up to a year to complete, but once finished MECCA would be able to get flights cleared through the FAA with a 15-minute phone call.

Prior FAA clearance is required to fly in the Class D airspace over Morgantown and much of West Virginia. Sperringer said MECCA is also seeking a waiver to fly at night.

Smith said there are plans for himself and MECCA Emergency Planner Mike Fortney to also become licensed drone pilots. He said that as the program grows, he can envision deputies and firefighters coming on board.

Sperringer said the drones being considered are much larger than what the agency is currently using. One has four 14-inch propellers and can have up to four mounted cameras. The other is capable of carrying items up to five pounds, which can be dropped from a hover.

“So you’re actually able to hook a line to it and fly it over to somebody in a flooded area,” Sperringer said by way of example.

Commission President Tom Bloom said he got a first-hand look at the effectiveness of the technology in the immediate aftermath of the April slips that closed a portion of River Road.

“There was no way we could have gotten down there, but by you taking the drone up, we were able to see exactly what was going on,” Bloom said. “Nobody could have gotten down to see what we were dealing with. That was impressive.”

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