Billings firefighters can now purchase a small fleet of drones designed specifically for search-and-rescue operations and assessing accidents involving hazardous materials.
A federal $300,000 grant awarded by the Department of Homeland Security and distributed through the state will be used to buy drones equipped with thermal senors and gaseous material monitors.
The drones' thermal sensors would be used for search and rescue and the gas monitors would be used to detect hazardous materials escaping from crash sites like train derailments or accidents at industrial sites.
The Billings Fire Department partners with a number of regional rural fire departments in eastern Montana as part of a rural hazmat team. The partnership gives these rural fire departments access to the drones and their equipment, along with other specialized tools.
Billings is one of five recognized regions in the state that partners with the rural fire departments around it for hazmat operations. The other regions include Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena and Missoula.
The Billings City Council gave approval for receiving the grant at its meeting Monday night, and with its approval council members asked specific questions about how the drones would be used and who would fly them.
Representatives from the fire department explained that the drones would not be used for regular patrol-type operations. Rather they would be launched only for emergency operations, like a train derailment involving tanker cars or when a lost hiker or hunter required a search and rescue team.
The Billings Police Department already operates public safety drones that handle more law-enforcement style operations, representatives from the fire department said.
Drone pilots within the fire department receive special public safety certification from the FAA, giving them permission to fly. However, the department also requires that they train and earn a drone pilot license.
Earlier in the meeting, Mayor Bill Cole addressed the new restrictions put in place by the Yellowstone County Public Health officer John Felton, following a rapid spike in new COVID-19 cases.
He encouraged city residents to follow the new requirements, which are backed by "the force of law," he said. But he emphasized that people need to follow the new rules to keep the hospitals from getting overwhelmed and to help businesses stay open.