Drone flyer diary: Dean West

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Dean West, QFES RPAS Pilot, location – Tara, QLD, Type of Drone – M30T NVLOS, Image – David Dempsey

Meet Dean West, a Darwin-bred dad-of-four and veteran, whose day job involves supporting emergency services and averting disasters with the aid of cutting-edge drone technology. Over the past 8 years, Dean has been at the forefront of battling fires, locating people in flooded cars, and training to deliver critical medicine to those who need it – all from the skies above.

Dean’s exciting journey began as a simple desire to connect with his son, who was serving as a firefighter in South Australia. Little did he know, this decision would lead him down a path of service and innovation. Joining his local volunteer fire service was just the beginning. His passion soon landed him a position at the Queensland Fire and Emergency services (QFES) as a Senior Remote Pilot. QFES oversees all of Queensland’s emergency services, including State Emergency Service (SES), Fire and Rescue, and the Rural Fire Service.

Rural Fire Service RPAS Van, North Stradbroke Island, Drone – M30T, Image – Dean West

Drones are at the centre of Dean’s day-to-day operations. The custom-built drones include features like speakers, dropping mechanisms, a spotlight, a thermal and zoom camera and waterproofing to navigate a variety of environmental conditions.

His team needs to be able to comb through vast areas of land (often at night using thermal cameras), operate in adverse weather conditions, and speak to people below.

To operate these drones safely, Dean has a remote pilot licence (RePL) to fly a 25kg multi rotor, a 7kg fixed wing rating and outside 3 nautical miles beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) licence, as well as completing the QFES remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) training program.

‘The QFES RPAS team provides vital aerial intelligence to decision makers on the ground. Our intel aids in strategic planning and resource allocation.

‘In firefighting situations, we work with the State Air Operations Unit to ensure the safety of our and uncrewed aviation on larger fires. We also map the disaster and provide live feeds to the Operation Centre to ensure the decision makers have the latest intelligence as the disaster unfolds.

‘In other emergencies, the QFES RPAS team investigate flooded streets, conduct damage assessments, and even search for missing people that might’ve washed away in cars.’

Hazard Reduction Burn, Jimna QLD. Image – Peter Georgeson

Dean’s biggest safety tip is to abide by CASA’s rules, specifically staying well clear of areas affecting public safety and emergency operations.

‘Allow emergency services to do their jobs, we need to operate as efficiently as possible without interruption.

‘We often get crewed and uncrewed recreational operators and sometimes media helicopters trying to get shots of car crashes, police operations, firefighting efforts, or search and rescue. Remember, if you fly, we can’t, and you are putting people’s lives and property at risk’.

Last year QFES Air Operations Unit completed more than 720 RPAS missions – a testament to the unwavering spirit of innovation and service.

Dean West, QFES RPAS Pilot. Image – Ben Macht

When reflecting on his journey, Dean offers sage advice for aspiring drone pilots.

‘Start by joining a local rural fire brigade, Fire and Rescue or a State Emergency Services (SES) unit and get those core skills around working in a disaster. A lot of the rural staff and SES are volunteers, so it’s an easy way to get your foot in the door.’

QFES RPAS Unit pride themselves on their professionalism. ‘We follow the CASA rules and do our best to keep the team safe by reading the fire and forecast its movement. We can teach you how to operate a drone, but you need to know how to be safe on the ground first.’

‘You can then move on to get your RePL and progress to the formal RPAS firefighting training.’

Looking to the future, Dean envisions a world where drones continue to revolutionise emergency response efforts.

‘We can do a lot more in the future if we do it in a safe manner.’

QFES RPAS pilots from all services. Image – Ben Macht

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