The past two years have highlighted the growing pressures on the fire service to protect their personnel and the public. This, alongside increased urbanisation, traffic and natural disasters has meant that the fire service is more aware of the opportunities that drones present to help them meet these evolving challenges.
The availability of improved technology, such as cameras and sensors, and greater range, means that drones are better positioned to support firefighting operations than ever.
The West Midlands Fire Service was the first fire brigade in the UK to recognise the potential of drone technology. Since their introduction in 2007, many of the 59 fire and rescue services in the UK have trialled or embedded drone technology within their operations. Together with the appointment of Tim Murrell as the National Fire Chief Council’s drone lead officer, drone technology will revolutionise how firefighters serve the public, by enhancing their emergency response, and ability to save lives, while protecting fire crews.
Saving lives and protecting property
Every second counts in an emergency. So, the more data available to make decisions, the higher the chance of a successful outcome. This is where drones come into their own; they can provide a unique aerial view of the incident. Deploying drones, with thermal cameras and sensors allows data to be live streamed to a control room where it is used to understand and assess risks, like structural safety, before sending anyone into an area.
Thermal imaging via drones can also be used to identify hot spots to prevent avoidable accidents. This means that areas where flammable items, such as gas canisters or other combustible chemicals, are stored can easily be identified and cleared. By using the insight gained from aerial and thermal imaging to increase situational awareness, Incident Commanders are in a stronger position to respond to an emergency. Kent’s Fire and Rescue Service collaborated with London’s Fire Brigade during the Grenfell Tower tragedy. By using their drone to monitor the structural integrity of the building and gather data, they were able to reassess the response to the fire. This avoided fire crews becoming trapped in the compromised building. Following the incident, data gathered by the drone during the ‘recovery phase’ was used during the investigation.
In addition to post-event analysis, drones can undertake thorough preventative assessments of high-risk building structures to identify external fire risks. Once identified using cameras mounted on drones, appropriate steps can be taken to mitigate them, reducing the chances of an incident taking place.
Drone technology can be used to deliver tangible lifesaving support. The London Fire Brigade has demonstrated that drones can be used to deliver fire-escape hoods to high-rise building balconies to assist escape efforts.
The visual support that drones provide, through aerial imaging, can also be harnessed during other emergencies. Using a drone to assess the crash site and gather intelligence to understand any associated threats or hazards, ahead of crew attending, means that decision-makers can determine the level of emergency response required and keep personnel safe. In the US, it is estimated that using drone technology reduces road closure times by up to 60% due to the ability to map crash sites two to three hours quicker than on foot. By accelerating the clearance of casualties and debris from crash sites, the risk of secondary crashes is also reduced as traffic flow is restored more quickly.
Drone technology can also be used to support the delivery of a coordinated multi-agency approach to natural disasters. When the River Steeping burst its banks in 2019, a multi-agency response was launched to protect the residents of more than 100 different postcodes. The Environment Agency, Lincolnshire Police, and Fire and Rescue Services used aerial imaging from drones to assess the extent and impact of floodwaters, identifying areas to prioritise and deploy resources. Drone technology can also support rescue operations by delivering airborne equipment drops and providing flotation devices to assist with water rescues in advance of emergency services arriving on the scene.
South Wales Fire and Rescue Service and South Wales and Gwent Police also successfully used drone technology to take a multi-faceted approach to fight wildfires. Using the technology, the crews were able to keep firefighters and the community safe, as well as monitor areas of interest to intercept anti-social behaviour to prevent future incidents.
Drones, mounted with infrared sensors, can quickly and efficiently survey large areas post-wildfire to detect heat signatures, indicating a further risk of fire. This is particularly useful when tackling underground fires, which can remain smouldering after being doused. Assessing and identifying areas of risk using drone technology means that action can be taken to reduce further danger to the public and firefighters.
Drone technology is already being used to enhance firefighting efforts in Dazu, Chongqing, using air-borne hoses. The Chinese company EHang has developed a drone specifically built for firefighting. Capable of precisely aiming flame retardant, and firing it in a stream, the purpose-built drone also contains six fire-retardant devices that can launch into hotspots.
Flying the flag for the future
The use of drone technology by the fire service is regulated by the same frameworks that govern the commercial use of drones. However, there is an exception for the emergency services if there is an immediate threat to life; enabling a dynamic risk assessment process to allow drones to be flown beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) in accordance with ORS4 No. 1223. With a dedicated drone lead officer at the National Fire Chief Council and more FRAs adopting drone technology to enhance their emergency response, sharing best practices across the forces in the UK will accelerate the use of drones.
These are just a few of the ways that drone technology is helping FRAs to meet their responsibilities efficiently and safely. So, now is the time for the fire industry to embrace drone solutions. If you are interested in finding out more about the benefits of drone technology, check out our website for information about our Showcase Event.
For more information, go to www.catapult.org.uk