The Coast News Group
Ron Owens
Oceanside Fire Safety Specialist Ron Owens holds the Mavic Air 2, one of the fire department’s new drones. Owens started the drone program last year and currently leads it. Photo by Samantha Nelson
CitiesNewsOceansideOceanside Featured

Oceanside Fire Department’s drone program takes flight

OCEANSIDE — An Oceanside firefighter is striving to bring the city’s Fire Department and Lifeguard divisions into the 21st century with a new kind of useful technology — drones.

About five years ago, Oceanside Fire Safety Specialist Ron Owens’ personal interest in drones really took off. After acquiring his own drones, Owens got the idea to test the unmanned aircraft’s usefulness during fire investigations and safety inspections.

Eventually, Owens showed his findings to his superiors, who were immediately receptive to the idea of utilizing the craft for a variety of operations.

Using Measure X funds, the Oceanside Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) team bought four drones last August as part of a newly created program.

These drones included two Mavic Pro 2 Enterprise Duals featuring infrared capabilities, one Mavic Pro Enterprise Zoom and one Mavic Air 2. The total cost for all four drones together was just over $13,200.

According to Owens, purchasing and using drones is much cheaper and takes less time to operate than a helicopter. Drone operators can perform rooftop inspections or hazardous investigations from an aerial vantage point without sending firefighters into unknown danger.

Oceanside Fire Safety Specialist Ron Owens flies the Mavic Pro 2 Enterprise Dual, a high-quality drone with infrared capabilities. Photo by Samantha Nelson

“Why risk sending firefighters when I can fly a drone, zoom in and get the feedback to the battalion chief first,” Owens said. “It just makes more sense.”

A remote pilot’s license is required to operate small, unmanned aircraft systems such as drones.

Owens, who has been a firefighter for 40 years having spent the last 20 years with Oceanside Fire Department, comes from a flying background.

His father was in the Air Force, and Owens himself launched airplanes from aircraft carriers when he was in the Navy. Owens also holds a small pilot’s license and remote pilot licenses.

The Oceanside Fire Department’s other two remote pilot license holders are Lifeguard Sergeants Tyler Berry and Andrew Francis.

The city’s Fire Department bought two Mavic Pro 2 Enterprise Dual drones as part of its new drone program. Photo by Samantha Nelson

Besides fire investigations and inspections, drones also come in handy for lifeguard search and rescue operations.

The drones have attachments, including a strobe light and a speaker, which can be heard from as high as 125 feet in the air. When a child is lost, lifeguards can record a message describing the lost child and broadcast it through the drone’s speaker as it flies around the beach.

Though the program is still in its beginning stages, other possibilities for the future include looking for sharks and dropping life preservers during rescue missions.

“We are actively training for such an event,” Berry told The Coast News via email.

The lifeguards have taken videos of large crowds, harbor dredging, rip currents and its junior lifeguard program so far.

“Right now we are still in the beginning stages of our program,” Berry said.

Owens pointed out that using drones also saves lifeguards from driving up and down the beach on patrols, which can be dangerous in emergency situations. He said the plan is to build two launch pads atop both towers on either side of the city’s large fishing pier.

The plan will eventually expand the drone program. Owens hopes to recruit more licensed drone pilots from the fire department as well as acquire at least two more drones.

Oceanside Fire Department is one of the few fire departments in the region to have its own drone program. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department and the City of Chula Vista have their own UAS drone program, and the San Diego Fire Department has also been testing drones for emergency services over the last few years.

Berry said he is aware of lifeguard agencies in Orange and Los Angeles Counties using drones for shark sightings and patrol duties.

“I think it is only a matter of time before the drone component is integrated into ocean lifeguard operations everywhere,” Berry said.

According to Owens, drones are going to be a way of the future for firefighters. By starting the new program, he feels as though he has left his lasting mark on the fire department.

Owens was recently recognized twice this last month by the Oceanside City Council as the top firefighter of 2020 and by the Chamber of Commerce as an Oceanside hero for his work on the drone program.

“It’s nice to be the first,” he said. “I consider myself the Tuskegee airman of the drone program.”