North Metro Fire using drones, infrared technology for ice rescues

NORTHGLENN -- As ice rescues become more common across the Front Range, emergency departments are turning to a second set of eyes in an effort to save people faster.

North Metro Fire has been using drones for about a year, but this week, they added a new feature: infrared technology.

"What we're looking for is holes in the ice. We're looking for signs of life, which include heat signatures, which before we'd never be able to see," says firefighter Jeff Burke.

Burke is one of two drone operators at North Metro who are specially trained to use the drones in emergency situations.

"We can find people we couldn't before, and do it faster and safer than ever before."

North Metro's infrared technology

Over the weekend, the department tested out the infrared technology for the first time.

Firefighters hid a dummy made of plastic underneath the ice at Carpenter Park in Northglenn, and sent Burke and other first responders in to find it.

Within seconds, Burke was able to see the dummy under the ice and direct crews in ice rescue suits to its exact location.

Lt. Harold Osborn says they were inspired by a situation in New York City, where a news helicopter spotted someone before rescuers could.

"An 11-year-old and his friend, the friend went through the ice, and the 11-year-old got his buddy out, but he went under," says Osborn. "At the same time, there was a news helicopter flying over the scene reporting the story, and what nobody on the ground could see was this kid, 15 feet from shore, had slipped under the ice shelf about six feet and his arms were floating up against the bottom of the ice."

An example of refraction that may confuse rescuers at ground level.

Jeff Burke says that's due to the phenomenon of refraction.

"When your head is very low to the water, you cannot see what's under the water," he says. "When you're a little higher, you can see a little bit better. If you increase that vantage point point to 25, 50 feet, the ice, in a lot of scenes, almost disappears."

The drone also allows rescuers to reach victims much faster. In addition to infrared technology, the drone has a 100-decibel speaker that Burke can speak through.

North Metro says if your dog runs out onto the ice and falls through, call 911 and stay off the ice.

After training on a number of lakes over the weekend, Osborn says there is no safe ice outside of the mountains right now.

"The ice is not safe. Even if we had a cold day or a storm move in, it's not safe," says Osborn.

North Metro's drone program has been completely funded by Oracle.

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