From December 2017 to September 2018 the London fire brigade investigated and implemented a drone capability mainly from recommendations after the tragic events of the Grenfell Tower fire in June 2017. In this time the team and capability was built based on research looking into what other services were currently operating at the time and also how the various assets were deployed, whether by dedicated vehicles or by firefighters on fire engines.
From the go-live date of September 2018 the drone team quickly grew to be a busy and integral part of fire service operations providing situational awareness to incident commanders and giving information not previously available to help bring fires to a safer quicker conclusion. During this time, we investigated what other roles the drone could carry out based on incidents where they hadn’t been present and thinking outside the box on how to use them to help in those incidents if they were to happen again.
One of these roles, which was taken from sharing ideas on what was feasible and achievable and a gap in where a drone could provide a service, was the dropping of smoke hoods. Smoke hoods had been pushed into service mainly after the Grenfell recommendations were made and are usually deployed by fire crews in BA sets. However, a scenario that had been envisaged was people stuck on balconies or rooftops in thick smoke out of the immediate reach of aerial ladder appliances or fire crews that had a long commute to reach them.
We took the idea to fix a smoke hood onto a drone with a dropping mechanism and fly it into a balcony to drop it to the person in distress, this was successfully carried out in various training exercises using a second drone to use the speaker function to relay the donning instructions to the person needing the smoke hood. This capability then lead onto the idea of dropping buoyancy aids to people in water related incidents, which again was tested successfully at the Lea Valley white water rafting centre on rescue swimmers. The main benefits were that the buoyancy aid kept the casualties above water and the drone could then help track their path down the river to help direct the water rescue technicians to the location.
Other capabilities we looked into were 3D/4D mapping software options, the main one being the digital mapping of high-risk buildings and using these to build models for firefighters to train with at station or via the ever popular VR delivery system. The option to make 3D/4D computer models with images captured after a fire was another option, these could be used by fire investigation for reports and investigations or for crews or recruits at training school to train with. Other uses of data-capture software vary from HazMat mapping or Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) incidents where using the sophisticated tools within the software means you could, for example, measure building walls then provide the USAR technicians with dimensions to build shores without having to get close to it, thus keeping them safe out of the hazard zone until the shores are put in place.
In the past year, post the Covid years, we have wanted to expand what we could do as a team and what roles the drone could carry out within the fire service world. Whilst on a USAR exercise a team were tasked with entering a confined space to undertake a HazMat sweep using a gas detector. This took a team of two and a whole host of safe systems of work to implement, which is standard practice but made us wonder if a drone could do it instead. I spoke to a few scientific advisors and HazMat officers to determine if this was a feasible option.
How would we deploy a gas monitor using a drone to undertake this function? We came up with the idea of strapping a gas monitor to a Mavic 2E and used the camera to read the display, for additional protection we added the cage to the drone to protect in case of a strike whilst flying indoors.
The result was that we could use this for internal or external incidents and that after again consulting the experts it was determined that the prop wash wouldn’t alter the readout for the gases. This is still a work in progress and we are still working closely with the advisors to work through all possible scenarios. We recently investigated what was on the market for industrial and commercial companies for the HazMat role and discovered a device called the AlphaGeo Sniffer 4D. I held the first of what will be a yearly HazMat drone working group in Essex this spring and brought fire and police services together for a demonstration on its uses and applications. We also showcased the smaller drone that we had designed for smaller incidents, which was received very well by all in attendance.
Another project we looked into this year was the tethered drone option. This had never really been on our wish list solely due to the way we operate and the limitations of tethered solutions. However, the end user for this would be the fire boat and fits the bill to be able to give aerial thermal and optical coverage without waiting for the land-based drone team to attend. A couple of years ago we demonstrated the use of drones on the boat showing night-time footage of exercises we had undertaken, which was received with good feedback and a possible case for a drone on a boat was raised. Fast forward to the present day and we have a solution to be able to do this, which will require training a few operators on each watch, then undertake a trial to provide outcomes for a possible full-time capability.
The other two areas we aim to cover this year and into next is using drones in a USAR environment, at various exercises at the Fire Service College last year we used the drone for initial size up and exploration purposes, the main aim being around firefighter safety and the option to recce incidents without putting people in danger first. In August this year we utilised a drone on a live USAR incident where we had to check for casualties and building damage at an explosion in a house, the top floor was too high from eyesight to see inside and no aerial was in attendance at that stage so the IC asked for the drone to be flown and have a look inside and help build an assessment of what they had to deal with.
I have set up a national working group for USAR/indoor flying and a host of fire service leads attended recently at the inaugural event to give internal flying a go and better understand how they can explore this capability within their own drone programmes.
The team never stops evolving; we try and stay ahead of the curve of what we can be called upon to be used for. The recent grass fires in London have pushed the use of the drone to a new level and now the incident commanders are actively using it for their decision making and using it to confirm plans implemented are working or to plot fire movements easier with the footage they receive via the drone.
The future will bring more autonomous drones and even drones that will help extinguish fires, but right now we are slowly building the foundations for that future one year at a time within the London Fire Brigade.
For more information, go to www.london-fire.gov.uk