New drone technology could help Salinas firefighters better protect the city

Jaime E. Love


Disaster can strike at any moment.

In April, Salinas firefighters spent hours fighting a massive blaze at Taylor Farms processing facility. There is little to nothing left of the Abbott Street location due to fire and smoke damage. The fire also put residents in south Salinas on high alert for possible ammonia exposure.

A new piece of technology was crucial to controlling the blaze, fire officials said. Infrared video images were taken by a Salinas Police Department drone that helped crews identify the fire’s point of origin and a large supply of ammonia on-site.

Roughly 35,000 pounds of ammonia was stored on-site. The possibility that the fire could spread to the ammonia prompted city officials to issue evacuations and shelter-in-place orders.

Eyes in the sky: 12 firefighters training to pilot drones

Fire officials say putting out the fire would have been more difficult without the guidance of the drone. The Fire Department is now assembling a drone pilot team of their own.

Salinas Battalion Chief Skylar Thornton says a group of roughly 12 firefighters are undergoing pilot training.

“They’re very enthusiastic about the opportunity,” he said. “They’re excited to be part of a team that is deployed throughout the city and maybe throughout a larger geographical area to be a cog in the wheel that’s helping to solve the larger problems.”

Thornton says in the past the department has received help from Salinas police drones during fires, but the goal is to have those resources available in-house.

“Salinas police is fairly busy and sometimes their drone people are not available, so we’ll have our own people training and upping our program so that we can take care of ourselves and augment the city’s ability to respond,” Thornton said.

It was only in recent years that the Police Department established its team of eight drone pilots. Sgt. Steve Sparks says each pilot is assigned their own drone, adding that the technology has so far proven invaluable on the field.

“There’s been cases where I can show you that it has literally saved lives,” Sparks said. “It’s helped the city as far as liability, and all around, it’s been nothing but positive for the community as a whole.”

Police say their range of DJI Technology Co. drones have been used in a variety of instances including law enforcement procedures, firefighting, and agricultural and power line inspections.

The drones feature an obstacle avoidance system to keep from crashing, and some include the ability to tap and track a person or vehicle on the screen.

Here’s a look at some of their drones:

A DJI Matrice drone owned and operated by the Salinas Police Department aided firefighters during the Taylor Farms building fire in April 2022.

A DJI Matrice drone owned and operated by the Salinas Police Department aided firefighters during the Taylor Farms building fire in April 2022.

DJI Matrice

This drone used to provide the high-resolution images during the Taylor Farms building fire.

Its features include a 200x zoom camera, range finder, heat/temperature reading and thermal camera. A Matrice can travel as fast as 40 miles per hour and can fly as far as 3.1 miles, according to the DJI website.

The drone itself costs roughly $12,000.

The DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual is one of the drone models utilized by the Salinas Police Department.

The DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual is one of the drone models utilized by the Salinas Police Department.

DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual

This drone features a regular and thermal imaging with a smart controller. Costs for the complete kit, including batteries, loudspeaker, strobe light and spotlight, run around $4,000.

Salinas Police say their DJI Mavic Mini drone is best used for indoor searches such as houses or buildings.

Salinas Police say their DJI Mavic Mini drone is best used for indoor searches such as houses or buildings.

DJI Mavic Mini

This drone is described the as more of an “everyday flycam” by its manufacturer, with around 30 minutes flight time. The mini is the more affordable drone, costing roughly $400.

Police say the Mavic Minis are used to search indoors, such as houses or buildings.

Thornton says the Fire Department hopes to obtain city funding to purchase similar drones to those of police, particularly the larger DJI Matrice, by July or August.

“We’ll be utilizing these on all kinds of incidents from hazmat, vegetation fires, building fires, to vehicle accidents if we’re looking for people who may have fled the scene,” Thornton said.

For now, Salinas police say they are prepared to jump into action and assist when needed.

“If a wildfire were to hit Monterey County again, we would be willing, able and happy to help out,” Sparks said.

Salinas police officer Steve Hoyte (left) and Sargent Steve Sparks assemble a DJI Matrice drone.

Salinas police officer Steve Hoyte (left) and Sargent Steve Sparks assemble a DJI Matrice drone.

This article originally appeared on Salinas Californian: DJI drones may help Salinas Fire Department boost firefighting efforts



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