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West Memphis FD buys drone for hazmat, search and rescue missions

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. -- The West Memphis Fire Department now has a new tool to help with public safety.

The department recently purchased a drone for $1,800, officials said. They said they used funds from their small equipment budget to buy the drone.

"It would save us a lot of time, a lot of manpower,” Lt. Fred Thorne said.

Firefighters said it would be an asset for them on missions like hazmat scenes since they can get a literal overview of any big scene.

"What 10 guys can cover on the ground, this can cover itself in half the time," Thorne said. "After we had a hazmat incident a few weeks ago, me and the chiefs discussed having one."

He’s talking about an incident in January where a truck spilled a poisonous material. They weren’t sure if it mixed with water in a nearby ditch and that would’ve made it deadly. So the firefighters suited up to check it out; that required special equipment, extra manpower and medical checks before proceeding.

“Where it took us an hour to make an entry, we could’ve done it in 10 minutes with less manpower and less risk to our guys," Assistant Chief Jeff Jones said.

“We had so many personnel on the scene that day, we had call in off-duty firefighters to man that equipment to still protect the city. We would’ve saved $1,000 in overtime costs,” Thorne said.

Soon, the drone will take care of work like that, as long as they comply with federal laws.

“The FAA recommends not flying at night. Then the height limit is 400 feet,” Thorne said.

He said he's researched Federal Aviation Administration regulations and has prepared a training course for his fellow firefighters. They started training Wednesday.

Thorne hoped to have at least two firefighters - himself and one other - certified through the FAA within the next month.

Ultimately, he hoped to have 12 to 15 West Memphis firefighters certified, allowing for at least three per shift.