As technology improves and changes, so does the way we conduct fire-rescue operations. One of the biggest changes to the fire service in recent years has been the introduction of small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) or drones into daily operations. With the inclusion of this new tool, not only do we change the way incidents are managed, but also the way we train for them. When properly used, drones can dramatically increase safety. But, just like every tool we use, comprehensive and ongoing training is the key to success.
The uses for drones are unlimited and can be applied in a variety of ways: 360 degree checks at house fires, scouting the upper floors of a high-rise building, hazardous materials investigation, pre-planning, technical rescue, as well as search and rescue, just to name a few. There is no denying that drones will play a more and more important role for first responders including firefighters as the technology develops. Drones provide a higher level of safety for firefighters and access to new information.
Drones also provide unique real-time tactical and strategic information on the fireground; information which was not previously available through other means. For instance, thermal imaging has been available for years and many departments use handheld cameras. However, thermal imaging cameras can now be mounted to drones, allowing pilots to fly above structures to get a more complete picture of a scene. Incident commanders (ICs) can then decide how to extinguish a fire or contain a hazard with the least risk to firefighters.
Drones can also be used to rapidly inspect entire structures without having to worry about size, hazards or access issues, or to to quickly cover large areas during search and rescue operations. Additionally, we can utilize drones with mounted sensors for HAZMAT incidents. Drones can fly into potentially contaminated areas to obtain readings without risk to fire/rescue personnel, which is not only safer, but also cheaper, as disposing of a drone typically is less costly than HAZMAT suits and decontamination equipment.
For large scale or geographically dispersed incidents, drones can provide a better vantage point. For example, an IC can get a better view of a brush fire to learn where to deploy resources and what direction the fire is moving. Drones can fly above trees and get much closer to an actual event than the operator or command post. As a result, the aerial view will allow the survey of acres, versus the limited amount that can be seen on the ground.
Furthermore drones can capture videos and still images of an incident or training, in addition to streaming live HD videos. These images can then be used as part of a debriefing or as evidence in an investigation.
When we look at resources that are currently available, many departments have helicopters either as part of their agency’s equipment or as part of an agreement with another agency. In either case, the use of helicopters can be appropriate for covering large areas or extended flight times, but is costly. At hundreds or thousands of dollars per flight hour, they are significantly more expensive to operate than drones. Helicopters can also take an extended period of time to request and arrive on scene, while drones just need to be pulled out of their case and launched, usually within minutes. Drones also provide the ability to immediately respond to instructions, while using a helicopter requires radio transmissions and the pilots/operators understanding of what is being asked. In addition, high definition videos can be hooked up from drones and directly be linked to a command post or vehicle.
Given the unique and dynamic operating environment, a two person pilot/operator team is usually recommended. This allows the pilot to concentrate on the safe operation of the aircraft, and the observer the operation of the cameras/payload. Using this methodology is similar to the crew resource management (CRM) successfully used in the airline industry to improve safety by distributing workload.
Having said that, operating a drone during an emergency is very different from flying a drone as a hobby, or from flying commercial drones to take pictures or videos, and it’s most likely also different from flying drones during training. The dynamic and often unknown environment of an incident presents unique challenges. As such, a live incident is not an appropriate time for a new pilot to fly a drone for the first time. Including drones in daily training is imperative. These training evolutions not only help pilots become familiar with how the aircraft operates, but help camera operators learn how to get the best vantage point. They also teach the IC’s what new information is available, so they can think about how best to use it. Having drones flying around during training also allows firefighters learn to operate with the additional overhead sounds and distractions.
However, before a pilot is able to fly a drone during operations, he or she needs a lot of practice and comprehensive training. A great way to start is to practice flying a drone on a simulator such as droneSim Pro (www.dronesimpro.com), which was originally developed to meet the needs of the fire service. The simulator allows drone pilots to learn basic, as well as advanced skills and help develop reflexes that are important in order to prevent costly aircraft accidents and damage. Another advantage of the simulator is that pilots can practice 24/7, without having to worry about weather conditions or battery life. Once basic flight skills are mastered, pilots can transition to the real aircraft.
As a next step, pilots need to learn about fly around hazards, unknown areas, thermals, smoke and water. Most of the time, pilots are going to start flying in environments that they have not previously had a chance to surveil prior to an incident, similar to medevac pilots. Besides, if they are going to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), they will not be able to see the drone and will only be able to control it and avoid obstacles by using an onboard camera.
For Departments that want to use drones to carry a payload like a radio, life jacket, or other supplies, pilots must be proficient in flying a drone with the additional weight to deliver the payload accurately to its destination. The increased weight decreases the maneuverability of the drone and failure of the lift system can cause injury to people on the ground.
Firefighters also need to learn the capabilities of the different types of drones, and which one will best complete a mission. For example, to cover a large area for search and rescue, a fixed-wing aircraft might be the best option. A quadcopter, or bigger, would be best to cover a small area or maintaining a visual on a specific area of interest. There is also a new generation of drones available called tilt-rotors. These aircrafts allow a pilot to take off like a quadcopter, but then provide the range and speed of a fixed wing. Given the different options, knowing the best tool to use is going to give better results.
In addition, pilot training also needs to include local regulations and department policies. For instance, some areas don’t allow drones to be flown over people who are not actively involved with a flight, or who haven’t been notified prior to drone operations.
Moreover, incident commanders need to learn how to integrate the new information they are receiving as a part of their command and control. For example, a thermal imaging camera can be flown over a roof and give information on whether or not it is safe to allow firefighters to walk on it. They can also make command decisions on how to attack a fire based on thermal flows. As we learn to interpret this new information, we can determine where, or even if there is a fire, how it is affecting a structure or environment, and how we can keep firefighters safe.
Admittedly, there are a few things that need to be considered and learned when implementing drones into daily operations. However, they are an amazing asset and can help prevent accidents. And most importantly they can potentially save lives!
For more information, go to www.cobbuas.com