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Ripon Fire may deploy drone
Aim is to speed up river rescues, reduce costs
A drone equipped with an infrared camera may one day look for people reported overdue rafting the Stanislaus River.

Could heat-seeking drones be the future of searching for lost rafters on the Stanislaus River?

With water levels hitting record lows this scorching summer it has been getting harder and harder for the Ripon Consolidated Fire District to launch search efforts for floaters and rafters who are overdue – an effort that involves manpower and callbacks that tax resources.

Parts of the river where the rescue boat would normally be able to access – a boat that takes four firefighters to launch – are not accessible and only paddled canoes can make their way through the shallows.

And searching at night, in the eyes of Ripon Consolidated Fire District Chief Dennis Bitters, is becoming an increasingly dangerous and costly task.

So he’s looking at other ways to find those that may have strayed during a lazy Saturday on the Stanislaus.

Bitters said that he has already personally purchased and is learning how to fly a drone that could cover the distance necessary to search for people along the course of the river that can often be difficult to find with the thick underbrush near the water level.

He’s now looking into ways to affix an infrared camera that can spot heat signatures in the water that would allow crews to know exactly where people are holed up so they could respond to a specific location instead of searching a large track of an always-changing river.

“It’s really dangerous to have guys out on that river at night, and I’m starting to think that unless we have a call that there is a life in the water at risk we’re not going to launch,” Bitters said. “It’s a technology that I’ve experimented with a little bit and that’s my ultimate goal – to be able to deploy something like that.

“People get freaked out when they hear the word drone – they think of like an armed predator or something like that. But people have been flying radio-controlled airplanes with cameras on them for a long time, and this is basically the same thing. I have one that I’ve purchased myself and I use for radio tower inspections and things like that, and as long as you comply with the FAA regulations and fly under 400 feet you can work a search pattern over the river.”

While the summer season has drawn to a close and the water rescue unit – that had many calls to assist further up the Stanislaus from Riverbank into Modesto this year – will see a decline, Bitters said that he wants to make sure that the lives of his firefighters are safe moving forward as more and more people take to the water for relaxation and fun.

Unfortunately those trips often include an abundance of alcohol and people that aren’t familiar with the stretch of river that they’re on or the currents contained within it. Most people aren’t wearing life jackets are using flotation devices that are easily popped when snagged by a branch or a bush or an underwater obstacle that can’t be seen.

“One of the big problems is that even if we were able to get a helicopter up – whether it’s CHP or Stanislaus County – they can’t see down below the canopy very well and we’re faced with the same problem,” Bitters said. “Most of the time the calls that we get are false alarms but people called for a water rescue so that’s the type of force we have to respond with.

“Ultimately it hurts the taxpayers because it drains the budget when we end up with four or six or eight guys out at the river who are searching for somebody who was never really lost – or got out and went to find a phone somewhere else or went to a friend’s house and forgot to check in. It’s a terrible drain.”