Fort Cavazos DES Drone team is new hero on scene

By Ayumi Davis, Fort Cavazos Public AffairsMay 16, 2024

A group of people in a boat.
A screenshot of the drone's video footage from the May 5, 2024, rescue of three Soldiers trapped at Curry Demolition Range at Fort Cavazos, Texas. (Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Fort Cavazos Fire Department) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT CAVAZOS, Texas — The last couple of weeks have been wrought with thunderstorms and deluges of rain, causing flooding all over Central Texas, with Fort Cavazos as no exception. When it was reported that multiple Soldiers were trapped at Cowhouse Machine Gun Range and Curry Demolition Range May 5 due to rising waters, there were new modern heroes that rose to the occasion to help — the Directorate of Emergency Services drone team.

The team, led by James Wallace, Fort Cavazos Fire Department Battalion 1 chief, was established early this year after efforts to create it last year. The team comprises 12 members, all of whom have remote pilot, or Part 107 certification, from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Drone capabilities have been around a while in the public service sector,” Wallace said. “So, we just wanted to, for lack of better words, kind of see what we needed to do to get those capabilities here on the installation.”

On top of the FAA certification, five members underwent 100 hours of training at a course in Austin, Texas, from February to April, with four more currently in the course.

“The first five of us went to this drone course and learned all the ins and outs of drones and how to fly and what to do and what to look for … So that’s kind of how it got started,” said Ennis Kanawi, a captain for Station 2, Fort Cavazos Fire Department.

The team got their first chance to fly their drones in action on May 5 when assisting in not one, but two rescue operations.

“We were very confident,” Kanawi said of his first mission as part of the drone team. “Running emergencies … this is our profession so that’s what we’re used to … We had completed the 100-hour course, which is very intense and a lot of training. So, I was very confident in our abilities and what we needed to do.”

The first operation of the day was rescuing Soldiers trapped at Cowhouse Machine Gun range. Wallace has called for the swift-water rescue team and additional resources, including the drone team, when he came upon Soldiers who explained over 30 Soldiers were trapped on the range, Kanawi said.

“By the time the swift-water rescue team got there, the flooding of the Cowhouse was a lot more,” he continued. “It started going over river. It ended up being right around four to five feet over the bridge and over the road.”

Boats and drones were launched to facilitate operations. The boats ferried people back and forth while the drone team, composed of three people that day, overwatched the boat teams and area. Arco Ruiz, firefighter, Station 1, Fort Cavazos Fire Department, and Michael Cloutier, firefighter, Station 2, Fort Cavazos Fire Department, piloted drones for the mission, alternating in order to switch out batteries and ensure continuous overwatch. Kanawi provided assistance.

Wallace explained that overwatching boats allows the incident commander to be able to observe the entire operation without hindering others from doing their jobs.

“Once that boat leaves visibility of the incident commander or whoever is on the shore as their safety, we have only radio communication,” Wallace said. “Well, they’re busy, and they’re tied up with their emergency operations, and the last they need to do is talk on the radio.

“What we did (the day of the incident) is when we launched the boat, we put the drone directly over the boat. The video footage captures that boat and in real time, we’re watching what’s going on,” Wallace continued.

The drone team was also able to provide real-time feedback to range operations to ensure there was no loss of equipment, Wallace said.

The boat and drone teams rescued all 39 Soldiers trapped at Cowhouse Machine Gun Range.

In the second rescue mission of the day, Cloutier was the sole pilot, Ruiz was a visual observer and Kanawi assumed command for the drone team.

“There is not just one person on the drone team that’s actually responding, doing things,” Kanawi said. “It’s going to be at least two to three personnel. So if we have one drone in the air, we’ll have one pilot, one visual observer, making sure there’s nothing getting in the way of the drone; and then also additional personnel, usually an officer that is watching what’s going on, running the operation, having constant communication with the other teams to ensure that it’s a coordinated effort.”

The drone team not only overwatched the boats, but also located three trapped Soldiers on Curry Demolition Range and identified potential hazards for the rescue crew.

All three Soldiers were also successfully rescued.

“It felt awesome,” Ruiz said of being able to be a part of the rescue, “because at the end of the day, I am the first person that officially flew these drones.”

A drone hovers in the air May 14, 2024,  at a training area at Fort Cavazos, Texas. The Fort Cavazos Fire Department formed a drone team this year to assist in operations. The team had their first missions May 5, successfully assisting in rescuing a total of 42 Soldiers in two different operations.
A drone hovers in the air May 14, 2024, at a training area at Fort Cavazos, Texas. The Fort Cavazos Fire Department formed a drone team this year to assist in operations. The team had their first missions May 5, successfully assisting in rescuing a total of 42 Soldiers in two different operations. (Photo Credit: Photo by Ayumi Davis, Fort Cavazos Fire Department) VIEW ORIGINAL

Wallace praised the drone team for their execution.

“So, everyone who was on those missions had completed the part 107 (FAA certification) and the 100-hour course,” Wallace said, “and so that training, I think, prepared us very well for the missions at hand … Those missions went very well given the situations that we were dealt. They were handled very professionally, and I think the team performed very well.”

When looking at the benefits of drones, Kanawi said the major benefit is safety.

“For drone operations, you can use (the drone) to assist in rescue, you can use it to assist in wildland operations, which we have a lot here on Fort Cavazos, to be able to see what’s going on, where the direction of the fire is heading, can help maneuver guys on the ground about where they need to go and what’s the safe route to get there,” Kanawi explained. “There’s so many benefits.”

Wallace agreed, highlighting the benefit of easier access.

“If we have a lost individual out in the ranges, we can locate that person,” he said. “The drone can cover a lot more ground, clear a lot more area a lot quicker than first responders. It can gain access to areas that first responders can’t gain access to.

“If we have 100 Soldiers in the woods doing a wide area search, we can replace that with one drone in the air and a three-person team in a safe area, and they can scan that area and be just as effective, if not more effective with that drone,” Wallace said.

He added some of the benefits of drones over deploying helicopters as well.

“Helos have to stay a little higher than a drone can,” Wallace explained, “and the benefit of the drone is it not only does live feed, but it has video recording … When you use a helo, it’s limited to the eyesight of either the crew chiefs or the pilots or anybody who’s on that aircraft visibly looking with their eyes so they only have a real-time scan of the person looking. We have video and picture capabilities to bring that back, download it to a computer, blow it up on a big screen TV and be able to see if there (are) any anomalies in that image that we need to go investigate further.”

Wallace said they are currently looking to expand their drone capabilities, including delivery capabilities.

The drones currently have live-feed, recording and thermal imaging abilities, he noted.

“If we were trying to find somebody out on the ranges somewhere, we could drop them water while we’re trying to get ground assets to them,” Wallace explained. “The capabilities are limitless on the drones as we progress this program forward.”