If a person goes missing and emergency workers are called to find them, the buzz of a drone is now going to be a part of that search.

The Bargersville Fire Department got a grant to buy a drone and other equipment, including a thermal-imaging camera that can be attached, for about $10,000.

The fire department’s specialty is search and rescue, which is a key reason for the drone, Bargersville Fire Battalion Chief Eric Funkhouser said.

But it can also be used in other emergencies, such as looking for where fire has spread inside a building, he said.

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“There’s tons of opportunities for us to use it,” he said.

Technology has become a valuable resource for fire departments across the county, from a device that tests and determines when possible chemicals or hazardous materials are found to listening devices that can help track down victims of a building collapse, fire officials said.

Not every department has each device. Instead, they split them up based on specialties.

So, for example, Greenwood Fire Department got a $75,000 grant for the Hazmat 360, which tests unknown substances to find out what they are. The machine can take a small amount of a liquid or solid substance and uses spectrometry to figure out what chemicals are inside it. In moments, the machine spits out the name of the substances it could be, with an accuracy rating.

The fire department doesn’t use the device a lot, but did collect chemicals from businesses all around the area to be implemented into the machine, so it would recognize them, Greenwood Fire Department Capt. Craig Hall said.

Greenwood’s specialty is hazardous materials, so if there is a chemical spill from an accident on Interstate 65 or if someone finds a white powder in their mail, they will be called to help with the testing and clean-up. The fire department also has a radiation tester, which can tell both the type — alpha, beta or gamma — and level of radiation in an area, Hall said.

But when it comes down to what Greenwood firefighters actually use the most — that’s easy: absorbent materials that can clean up spills, such as oil or fuel from accident, Hall said.

Even if the devices aren’t used often, technology has definitely been a game changer for fire departments, White River Township Fire Chief Jeremy Pell said.

That started about 15 years ago with thermal imaging cameras that firefighters can use to look for the heat from a fire or a victim trapped in a building, including a fellow firefighter, he said. In the years since then, the devices have only gotten cheaper and better — with improved displays and battery life, he said.

For years, the only way to find someone in a burning building was by feeling for them, but the heat sensing camera changed that, he said.

“If it’s a fire, you can’t see, you can’t look down and see your boots,” Pell said.

The heat sensing cameras also allow firefighters to be more efficient, being able to check walls and ceilings for signs of fire without having to tear into them, Pell said.

The amount of new technology available is endless, but funding is not, Pell said. Fire departments often have to wait for new devices to be tested and used for years — often by the military — before the price goes down enough that they can buy it, he said.

That’s a key reason why fire departments have specialty areas, he said.

“We run a really smart model,” Pell said.

For White River Fire, the specialty is building collapse. Firefighters have tiny cameras they can snake through rubble to locate people and listening devices that can be placed in different areas to listen for any victims that may be trapped inside, he said.

“I hope we never need it. These technologies can be game changers when you need them,” Pell said.

Fire departments also can work together, and combine different pieces of equipment in a situation, officials said.

For example, Bargersville’s drone also could be used in a building collapse or a car accident, to try to get a different view of a situation.

But for now, one of the key uses is in searches for people who have gone missing, Funkhouser said.

Funkhouser has used the drone about six times in searches in recent weeks. He has gone through hours of training, including a class in Atlanta that covers air space requirements.

He knows how far his drone can go, and he knows how to use it to look for something specific, such as a person, in a field. In a matter of seconds, traveling at up to 45 mph, he can fly his drone as much as 400 feet into the air and up to 2 miles away and get a full view of a field, while emergency workers would still be walking to the property, he said.

For example, when a soldier went missing during training exercises at Camp Atterbury in 2015, his drone could have covered significantly more ground — and in a shorter period of time — than search teams could, he said.

But he also has other ideas for how he can use the drone, including being able to look at a scene where hazardous materials have spilled, without risking a firefighter’s safety, giving police a different view for accident reports and bringing small items, such as a rope or a life jacket, to a victim in a water rescue, he said. That last idea will take practice, but Funkhouser thinks of all the ways that could help in a rescue situation, he said.

“We can find a reason for it on most of our calls,” he said.

At a glance

Here is a closer look at some of the technology fire departments use:


Who: Bargersville Fire Department

Cost: $10,000

Features: Cameras that can get a 360-degree view or use thermal imaging to look for heat sources

Possible uses: Search and rescue, looking for hot spots at a fire, assessing a hazardous material spill

Hazmat 360

Who: Greenwood Fire Department

Cost: $75,000

Features: Uses spectometry to test chemicals and gives an accuracy rating

Uses: Chemical spills, unknown chemicals, such as powder sent through the mail

Cameras and listening devices

Who: White River Township Fire Department

Features: Small cameras can get into small crevices of debris looking for victims, listening devices can be placed all over an area to listen for sounds of people in rubble

Possible uses: Building collapse, such as due to a tornado

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Annie Goeller is managing editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at agoeller@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2718.