A dramatic blaze at a recycling centre in Altham, where over 400 vehicles were on fire and a further 2,000 were at risk of going up in flames, was recently captured on film by Lancashire Fire and Rescue's brand new drone.
The shocking footage, shot by one of its trained pilots Pete Bamber, was shared across the county and showed the sheer scale of the mammoth blaze that confronted firefighters.
The drone's official launch was only on September 1 but it seems that Lancashire Fire and Rescue's newest recruit, an Aeryon Labs Skyranger drone, has quite literally had a baptism of fire. It has already attended 74 incidents including seven fatal road collisions, 29 missing persons, and 34 fire related incidents including a major blaze at a sawdust mill in Farrington Moss and one of the most hazardous types of fire, an Oxyacetylene fire in Nether Kellet.
Fire services were alerted to the Oxyacetylene fire on 18 November and hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes and businesses. Steve Darby, Northern Area Incident Intelligence Officer for LFRS, said of the incident: "The workman had gone to light his oxyacetylene blow torch in the morning, there was a flashback and the flame leaked out of the pipes on the cylinder.
"He immediately evacuated the area. When we arrived, after a quick assessment, we realised it was too dangerous to put any of our officers close [to the incident]. An immediate evacuation was carried out of homes and businesses within a 200m exclusion zone.
"If an Oxyacetylene cylinder heats up it has the potential to explode - so you're quite literally looking at a bomb.
"[using the drone] we were able to make an assessment that the valve cluster on the cylinder was undamaged by the fire. We were then able to send an officer in to isolate the valve which then let the flame die down.
"The big benefit of using the drone is that fire fighters' lives weren't put at risk."
The military-grade drone has no doubt been a useful addition to the LFRS but it comes at a price. It cost around £60k to equip the team with a full set drone and it took 3 months to train each of the six drone pilots - existing fire officers who were trained to pilot in addition to their normal duties.
The initial cost of the drone was partly met by Lancashire Police and Crime Commissioner Clive Grunshaw who contributed £10,000 – using money seized from criminals under the Proceeds of Crime Act. But it's all money well spent according to Tim Murrell, Group Manager and National Drone Lead for Fire and Rescue.
Tim Murrell said: "As firefighters when we turn up to a job we usually have very little information. But those early decisions are often our most critical - not only for the incident in question - but all too often, those decisions are the most important of our lives.
"Situation awareness saves lives and the drones give us a better handle of the situation in those early stages.
"This drone is probably the busiest in the country as the Aeryon Skyranger can fly in winds of 40mph whereas most drones would struggle at wind speeds of 20mph. A cheaper drone would simply not have been able to fly as often in the Northwest."
Indeed, the Skyranger has a pretty impressive specification - a 40 minute flight time, wind tolerance of up to 40mph, a temperature range of -33 to +50 degrees Centigrade, a range of 3km and a maximum altitude of 4,500m.
But despite the ease of the technology, flying drones is not without challenges. Drones are becoming more popular which is making airspace more congested. This presents problems for the fire service as they are unable to fly their emergency drone if another drone is already in the airspace.
Tim Murrell said: "We're not about stopping people having fun with their drones. We would just ask people to be aware of 'The Drone Code.'"
The Drone Code is the Civil Aviation's guide to operating a drone safely. It tells users to fly their drones no higher than 400ft. It also gives guidance on safe distances from buildings and people and instructs drone flyers to keep their device in sight. There is also a new free app from NATS called 'Drone Assist' which can help users see other drones and restricted airspace.
The future of drones and how they will be used by the Fire Service is still developing, but it looks as though the new Aeryon Labs Skyranger drone has already proved its worth to the firefighters who have used them. Speaking about the Oxyacetylene fire in Nether Kellet, Incident Intelligence Officer Steve Darby said: "By utilising the drone we were able to make some safe decisions.
"Nobody's life was put in danger, all the residents were able to go back to their homes and all the businesses were able to carry on. You can't put a price on that."