CALLAWAY, Minn. – U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., met with emergency responders in Callaway on Thursday and was a little surprised to hear them sing the praises of an unexpected hero - a drone with a video camera.
Piloted by a Perham firefighter, the drone flew over the scene of a derailment and propane tanker truck fire last week, giving firefighters a critical bird's-eye view of the dangerous situation, said Callaway Fire Chief Keith Heinlein, who was in charge at the scene.
"My decisions are only as good as the information I have," he said.
Information from the drone was invaluable, letting firefighters see "what was burning and where," including areas that were blocked from view because of overturned grain cars, he said.
Emergency responders watched the live video feed from the drone on a screen inside their on-site command center.
Heinlein said they were joined in "the war room" by Cenex Harvest State Propane professionals who, thanks to the drone video, could see the propane tanker burning, including close-ups of valves and other parts, "and tell us exactly what was happening," he said.
The propane tanker truck burned for about 10 hours, all the while being cooled by a steady stream of water shot by firefighters, before the liquid propane had burned off and was replaced by more volatile propane gas, Heinlein said.
The propane fire got too hot at one point and the tanker vented, causing a visible flare-up before firefighters cooled it down again, Heinlein said.
Later it heated up again in spite of firefighter efforts to keep it cooled down. "We got behind it," couldn't keep it cool enough, and it exploded, Heinlein said.
Nobody was hurt in the blast, though at least one firefighter, who was only about 50 yards away, was stunned by the noise and heat of the explosion.
Useful as the unmanned drone was in the Callaway emergency, firefighters were only able to use it because of a fluke - Federal Aviation Administration regulations require a licensed pilot to fly a drone, and there happened to be one on the Perham Fire Department, said Shane Richard, chief deputy at the Becker County Sheriff's Office.
That's ironic, because anyone can basically fly a drone just by buying one, no pilot's license needed, he said.
"There's not much regulating of private citizens, as opposed to us, we're required to have a licensed pilot," Richard said. "Our ability to use them is getting so limited."
"This is a perfect use for them," Klobuchar agreed, adding that she would advocate for that in the Senate, starting with a letter to the FAA calling for drone use by firefighters and police in an emergency.
Klobuchar said her major concerns about drones involve personal privacy and safety.
"One of my big concerns is a lot of people using them and hitting planes," she said.
"It would seem (allowing drones during) emergency situations would be a no-brainer," she added.
Emergency responders at the meeting agreed that drones capable of carrying up to 15 pounds could be vital help during search and rescue operations and could be used for things like dropping blankets to a lost and freezing hunter or life jackets to people that have fallen overboard in the summer or gone through lake ice in the winter.
"That's so much better than pizzas coming in by drones," Klobuchar joked.
The general consensus was that some drone training should be required by emergency responders, but not anywhere near the training required to get a pilot's license.
Klobuchar spoke with several dozen emergency responders at Callaway City Hall, then visited the crash site and watched some of the drone video of the fire.