Roanoke County Fire and Rescue testing drone delivery for emergency situations

Pilot program will start small, but aims to ramp up with technology and legislative advancements

ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. – Drones have become just as common as hoses and axes for many of our local fire departments and now Roanoke County is piloting a program that would take its drones to the next level.

Roanoke County Fire and Rescue’s drone program has grown more valuable by the day since launching in 2018. Most recently it flew over the top of the major fire at Pebble Creek Apartments to document damage and using thermal imaging, identify hot spots and places the fire had spread to. Lieutenant Sean Lacy said the while the drones have been valuable, they’ve generally served a single purpose.

“Most of the time it provides us an aerial surveillance capability where we can have aerial imagery of the situation that’s going on,” Lacy said.

But that soon may be changing. The county is testing a new way to fly items weighing up to a pound through the sky, dropping with a parachute to the ground.

“[We’re] going to be using that as a delivery capability so that we can deliver supplies to crews that are out in the field or to victims with supplies that they may need in an emergency,” Lacy said

It could be flying medication or a radio to someone stranded in remote terrain, or carrying a rope for technical rescue across a gorge or waterway. The aftermarket product affixed to the county’s drones was intended to be used for fishing, but members of the department saw other possible uses and brainstormed within.

“I think that’s what we’re starting to see now with this new technology in all areas, collaborating and figuring out different ways to use it that other people haven’t thought of,” Roanoke County Fire and Rescue Community Outreach Coordinator Brian Clingenpeel said.

The county is the first in our area, and possibly the first local department in the state to try this out. Its use will be limited, but this research is paving the way for when technology and legislation catch up.

“Just giving it a try, seeing what it’s capable of, what it’s not and it’s still very much an experiment it’s not operational as of yet, but we hope it will be in the future,” Lacy said.

The county’s drone operators must follow all flight rules as prescribed by the FAA and still require line of sight operation.


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