The use of aerial drones in firefighting and public safety are growing much faster than ever before. This trend does not seem to be slowing any time soon, even in the midst of COVID19. When agencies were asked if they planned to purchase a new drone in 2020, a recent DRONERESPONDERS Survey revealed that a majority of agencies indicated they plan to buy 1 or 2 drones in 2020. They further indicated that COVID19 had minimal impact on their drone programs.
In the field of firefighting, drones are being used during structure fires, wildfire reconnaissance, wildfire backfire operations, hazardous material incidents, search and rescue, transportation accidents, water rescues, fire forensic investigations, natural disasters and more. Some of the more notable use of drones by fire service agencies include the horrific wildfires in California and Australia, the Notre Dame and Nantes Cathedral fires in France and the fire/explosion in downtown Los Angeles to name a few. In the wildfires, drones help to identify the direction of spread, locate spot fires, show dangerous proximity of firefighters to the wildfire and to locate remaining hot spots by use of thermal imaging. At the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, the drone reconnaissance provided guidance as to the best location to place master streams to effectively stop extension into other areas of the cathedral. Fire service agencies around the world have adopted drones in a big way. Some of these fire service agencies utilizing drones are Austin TX Fire Department, London UK Fire Brigade, the French Fire Service, Queensland Australia Fire Service, Los Angeles City Fire Department, York County VA Fire & Life Safety, FDNY, Menlo Park CA Fire Department, Miami Dade FL Fire-Rescue, Southern Manatee FL Fire and Rescue, Willoughby OH Fire Department, Sacramento CA Metropolitan Fire Department, Grada Rijeke Croatia Fire Brigade, Winnipeg Canada Fire Department, Colorado Center of Excellence Division of Fire Prevention and Control, Wylie TX Fire Rescue and many more.
Globally and to include all public safety disciplines, the same study identified over 17 different public safety mission types. An important note – if firefighting agencies are the only agency with a drone program, they are likely to be flying any or all of the mission types. The mission types have changed dramatically from the introduction of drones into public safety operations. The missions now include but are not limited to crime scene investigations/forensics, damage assessment, COVID19 support, incident command/control, hazmat response, mapping, public information, search for lost persons, water rescues, security overwatch, SWAT/tactical operations, structure fires, special event planning, training/exercises, transportation accidents and wildfire operations. The top six mission types include (1) training/exercises, (2) search for lost persons, (3) incident command/control, (4) law enforcement forensics/traffic crash reconstruction, (5) mapping and (6) damage assessment.
As firefighting and public safety drone programs mature, there are some common themes that have been discovered. First, is the learning of the many different drone use cases has a direct impact on enhancing public safety operations in the areas of safety, effectiveness and situational awareness. There is a universal agreement that drones have been very impactful during major disasters by providing a drone’s eye view to inform “how bad is bad” as it relates to flooding, damage assessment and searching for people in need. Drones have been used in natural disasters which include tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, mudslides, avalanches, volcanic activity and earthquakes. As the emergent issues are mitigated, drones also provide an affordable means of measuring progress of recovery by showing receding flood waters, reopened roads and damage assessment. This information is often shared with citizens and insurance companies to provide peace of mind and/or expedite insurance claims.
As drone programs mature, they typically go through some transformational changes. First, the type and number of missions increase. This in turn requires more and different types of drones and the respective payloads to perform the new mission sets. Then as you might guess, the additional types and number of missions require more remote pilots which then necessitates more training. All of this transformation validates how important drones have become to public safety worldwide. Many public safety agencies with drone programs have stated that they don’t know how they ever operated without their drone program and never plan to do without.
Keep in mind that as valuable a drone program has proven to be, there is a great deal that goes into a public safety drone program. Buying and flying is the easiest parts of a program but to be fully safe and operational a program must establish clear oversight, determine mission types, implement standard operating procedures, purchase appropriate aircraft, identify payloads, maintain flight logs, provide training, establish a maintenance program, purchase spare batteries/equipment, plan for logistical support, address liability/insurance, determine data storage needs, develop a documentation policy, perform community outreach and ensure protection of privacy/civil rights.
In the United States, actively tethered drones are seeing a great deal of interest from public safety agencies especially smaller as well as volunteer fire departments. The primary reason the interest is because Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations don’t require remote pilot certification. Essentially an actively tethered drone can be launched within seconds at the push of a button, operated remotely, maintain tension/stability, provide immediate streaming video (normal visual or thermal) to an incident commander, maintain a persistent overwatch as the drone is powered continuously through the tether. When the operation is over, one button lands the drone. Pierce Fire Apparatus Manufacturing (the largest in the U.S.) was one of the first apparatus manufacturers to implement the Fotokite tethered drone into the apparatus design which can be installed (new or retrofit) in a compartment or on the apparatus cab. This product is called the Pierce Situational Awareness System.
While not specifically defined or limited to tethered operation but to reinforce the value and interest of drones, Rosenbauer International AG has formed a strategic partnership with DJI, a leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging tech, on digital emergency response management. Data from DJI’s drone fleet management software, FlightHub, will be seamlessly integrated into Rosenbauer’s operation management system giving additional visual and thermal data to the decision maker of the operation.
The importance of drones has been documented by the number of lives saved as captured in an initial report by DJI (the world’s largest drone manufacturer) and more recently displayed on an online map (https://enterprise.dji.com/drone-rescue-map/Phone#map). As of 8/16/2020, the map showed 444 lives saved around the world from 253 incidents and involving 29+ countries – 137 in North America, 15 in Latin America, 69 in Europe, 1 in Africa, 27 in Asia and 4 in Oceania. These lives saved are documented from situations where drones have found missing people, brought supplies to trapped survivors, viewed through smoke and darkness to find unconscious victims. This includes every drone rescue regardless of drone manufacturer and compiled from news stories and social media posts from rescuers. While this is impressive, it still does not provide the full measure of value that public safety drones provide to communities and citizens. Through numerous disasters, public safety drones have flown tens of thousands of missions that have positively impacted the quality of lives of people worldwide in a major way.
The question to ask, “Would any public safety commander or emergency manager make critical command decisions with their eyes closed?” The answer has been a resounding “NO”! Without the use of a drone and the drone’s eye view, there is much that cannot be seen from the ground which translates to making decisions with eyes closed.
In today’s world, not implementing a public safety drone program is unacceptable as it unnecessarily endangers the lives of citizens and responders!
If a fire department is interested in starting a public safety drone program, visit the DRONERESPONDERS website and join (membership is free). On the website, there is a Resource Center with over 400 supporting documents (SOPs, training, checklists, guidelines, etc.) on public safety drones.
For more information, go to www.droneresponders.org