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Drone proves key in refinery fire

Superior Police Officer Bradley Jago, center, controls the department's drone as a member of the Husky Energy oil refinery's emergency response team looks on during an April 26 fire. On the left is Superior firefighter Camron Vollbrecht. At the right, Ken Rikkola with Husky's emergency response team watches drone footage through goggles. Courtesy of Superior Police Department1 / 2
Superior Police Officer Bradley Jago holds the department's drone during a press conference Wednesday in the Government Center. The unmanned craft has been used 11 times since it was purchased in November. It provided aerial views of the Husky Energy oil refinery fire that led to a successful plan of attack. Maria Lockwood2 / 2

From three-quarters of a mile away, Husky Energy's emergency response team developed a plan to battle the April 26 refinery fire in Superior, thanks to the Superior Police Department's drone.

"We were still able to see real-time footage from a safe position that allowed them to basically figure out how we're going to fight this," said Officer Bradley Jago, a member of the department's Tactical Technology Division.

Thick smoke made it difficult to determine the extent of the fire, according to a statement by Ken Rikkola, operations section chief for the emergency response team. Without that information, there was no safe way to attack it.

"We could not safely send our team in without a good visual of what was going on," he said.

That changed when the police department's drone was deployed, about 10 minutes after the fire reignited.

"The immediate response from the SPD meant we had a close-up, detailed look," Rikkola said. "It gave us the confidence to go in and target the source of the fire."

Additional drones were provided a few hours later by a private Minneapolis company, Insight Environmental, and the St. Louis County Rescue Squad.

"The additional drones and battery power gave us continuous coverage and this was a major part of our successful firefighting tactics," Rikkola said. "The bird's eye view enabled us to knock the fire down within a few hours."

Since the Superior Police Department began using the drone in November, its eye in the sky has been deployed 11 times. Typically the small craft is used to take aerial photographs of crime scenes, such as a reported robbery and kidnapping in Homecroft Court and a fatal traffic accident.

"It's one thing to get them from Google maps, but that might be outdated," said Jago, the department's public information officer. "This gives us the day-of type crime scene photos."

The craft has also proved useful in firefighting efforts, both at the Cooper Elementary School fire April 9 and the refinery fire.

"In the terms of the Cooper School fire, the battalion chief of the Superior Fire Department really appreciated that overall view, and he was able to keep an eye on the fire and his own crew," Jago said. "In terms of the Husky fire, we were able to provide Ken Rikkola and overall view of the Husky fire ... he was able to determine a plan to attack that fire and almost within a few hours of that plan, they were able to put that fire out."

The drone, extra batteries and goggles cost the department about $1,500, he said. Four members of the department are certified to fly it, including two with pilot's licenses. They have authorization to operate from the Superior airport, and keep the drone no more than 400 feet in the air.

"This is your basic consumer-level drone that we have adapted for law enforcement use," Jago said. "This isn't something we use to surveil people, this isn't an enforcement drone. It isn't out there doing traffic enforcement, anything like that. This is something that's primarily used for search and rescue, fire fighting, that we've seen in the last few months, and natural disasters."

It may set the stage for a bigger program.

"The drone that we would ultimately like to purchase in the future, maybe a joint firefighting, Superior Police Department drone that would have a thermal camera on it, so we could identify hot spots or maybe somebody who's wandered into the woods that we need to find, that would be right around $20,000," Jago said.

Within the last month, the department spent $99 on a second, smaller machine.

"The primary function of this drone would be to fly indoors and assist maybe during a SWAT team callout in clearing some rooms," Jago said.

Drone cameras can fly high, zoom in, provide high-quality video and still photographs and even be live-streamed.

"It has an unlimited amount of uses," Jago said. "There are uses for it that we probably haven't even discovered yet."