Drone usage by public safety agencies is at its highest level to date, with nearly 4,000 agencies now having drones or drone programs. Leading the implementation of drones in law enforcement with 42%, followed by fire service at 37%, emergency management with 12%, and the remainder by other categories such as search-and-rescue and EMS.
Some of the primary fire missions for drones are structural fires, wildfires, hazmat responses, fire forensic investigations, swift water rescues, floods, tornadoes, search for lost persons, and hurricane damage assessment.
Using Thermal imaging
A thermal image camera is a key payload for drones in the fire service as it supplies heat signatures that provide valuable information as to fire spread, structural integrity, and location of firefighters while operating around the fire.
Thermal images see through smoke to direct elevated streams effectively onto the fire and identify hotspots
Thermal images see through smoke to direct elevated streams effectively onto the fire and identify hotspots from a lightning strike, hotspots during overhaul, hotspots from wildfires, and liquid levels in hazmat tanks.
Applications of drones
Drones in hazmat can be deployed to do remote monitoring, substance identification, pre-entry evaluation, overwatch during the hazmat operation, and drop needed tools nearby. They can also identify spills and direction of flow, pollutants on or in waterways, and more.
For wildfires, drones can quickly identify the direction of fire spread, the distance between the fire and firefighters, hotspots remaining, and can drop incendiary devices to start backfire operations. Drones are also used before and after the fire to determine the fuel load present. Pre-fire analysis of the fuel load can be used to mitigate and/or minimize hazardous situations before the fire.
The fire service is also using drones for training. Roof operations and other training can be observed and captured to review later. Also, drones can capture facility pre-fire plans as well as complex building projects.
Every fire department will deploy a drone to enhance safety, operational effectiveness, and real-time awareness
“As fire service (and public safety) leadership fully understand the potential of what drones offer, every department will be deploying a drone (or two) for significant incidents as a part of the initial response to enhance safety, increase operational effectiveness, and real-time situational awareness,” says Chief Charles L. Werner (Emeritus-RET), Director, DroneResponders Public Safety Alliance.
The DroneResponders Alliance is the largest and an award-winning non-profit program to advance the use of drones in public safety (for all disciplines). While focused on the United States, DroneResponders has more than 3,800 members and representation from 47 countries.
On its website, DroneResponders hosts the largest Online Resource Center (more than 600 documents – standard operating procedures, policy manuals, Certificate of Authorization/Waiver Guidance, etc.) and has a discussion forum with many topic threads.
Increasing drone programs
Drone programs (free flight and/or tethered) will continue to increase exponentially for the fire service. There were over 17 public safety use cases identified on the DroneResponders Spring 2020 Research Study, and even these case studies can be broken down even more.
“One thing that we have found is that if a single agency has a drone program, they usually fly other missions as well as their primary mission set,” says Werner. “So if a fire department is the only agency flying, they will usually cover fire missions, police missions, and emergency management missions. The same is true if it were a single police agency flying.”
Having real-time awareness
“Real-time 360 situational awareness is a game-changer with visual optics, thermal imaging, and streaming video on structure fires, wildfires, hazmat incidents, lost person searches, floods/swift-water rescues, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and more,” says Werner.
“I ask agency leaders if they would ever make command decisions with their eyes closed because, without that aerial view, many hazards or critical information are not known,” adds Werner. “I do believe as the numbers of drones increase, prices will fall and there will be a more competitive marketplace.”
Limitations of drones
One of the main obstacles of the drone is the current length of flight is limited by battery life
The main obstacles that remain are regulatory limits on Beyond Visual Line of Sight (which are changing) and one remote pilot operating multiple drones. Other obstacles include a need for competitively priced drones with comparable payloads, and the current length of flights is limited by battery life.
In France during the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, a drone was used to identify the best position to attack the fire to prevent further spread to the remainder of the cathedral.
Initiatives taken by DroneResponders
Other DroneResponders initiatives include:
- Monthly Public Safety UAS Webinars in partnership with the FAA;
- Monthly Podcasts that highlight Public Safety UAS programs, successes, emerging technologies;
- A Major Cities Working Group (cities over 500K) headed up by Capt. Michael Leo (Fire Department of New York);
- A Drone as a First Responder Working Group headed up by Capt. Don Redmond (Chula Vista [Calif.] Police Department);
- Legal/Policy Working Group led by Dawn Zoldi, Founder and CEO of P3 Tech Consulting;
- Public Safety/Media Working Group led by Mickey Osterreicher (National Press Photographers Association);
- Training Curriculum Standard Working Group facilitated by Katie Thielmeyer (Woodlawn [Ohio} Fire Department);
- National Public Safety UAS Database Project headed up by Charles Werner in partnership with NASA Ames Research Center; and
- National Public Safety UAS Database Mapping Project headed up by Brandon Karr (Pearland Police Department) in partnership with Esri [mapping and software provider].