OBX fire department launches drone program

WAVY News 10

CURRITUCK COUNTY, N.C. (WAVY) — On a remote beach in the Outer Banks, a volunteer fire department is pioneering a drone program its members hope will help them save lives.

“It’s already been helpful to us on several occasions,” said Bobby Pervere, a firefighter and paramedic who helped launch the department’s drone program in early March.

Pervere is a member of the 82-person Carova Beach Volunteer Fire & Rescue department, which covers a 10-mile stretch of houses and a federal wildlife preserve that is accessible on land only by four-wheel drive vehicles.

“We’ll get a lot of calls for smoke in an unknown area. Previously, it could take upwards of an hour for us to get eyes on it, make sure it’s secluded,” Pervere said. “Now, in five minutes, I can be up in the air and confirm it’s no threat to any structures or land here, and we can keep an eye on it to make sure that we’re good.”

In the summer, firefighters estimate Carova’s population swells from somewhere around 300 locals to thousands of tourists, who stay in beachfront homes scattered across the sand dunes.

The department fields 80 percent of its calls between Memorial Day and Labor Day, according to Pervere. Many of those calls are about objects spotted hundreds of feet offshore.

“Traditionally, a lifeguard would paddle out and investigate,” he said. “From the shore, we can very easily launch this, send it out over top of it, look down and see if there’s anything in it. […] Very easily, we could see someone splashing and waving for help.”

While the FAA has published some guidelines for small drones, Pervere said his department put stricter guidelines in place for its aerial unit.

Those include keeping the drone lower than 375 feet in the air, within eyesight of the operator at all times, and controlling the pitch to keep the aircraft below 20 mph, regardless of wind speed. While the drone is up in the air, Pervere said operators have to steer it away from people and structures, which he also hopes will help assuage any concerns about invasions of privacy.

“We have a strict privacy policy in place with the video,” he said. “We keep flight logs for every time it goes in the air, and the video is logged with the flight record of the day.”

Pervere watched the video recorded Wednesday before releasing it to WAVY. He said the release would go into the flight log.

Another internal policy created by the department: the drone will not be used in any criminal investigations or released to law enforcement without a court-ordered subpoena.

After a year of research, the department officially launched its drone program in January, at a cost of less than $5,000, according to Pervere.

Public records to verify the cost were not immediately available Wednesday.

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