The Use of Drones in Firefighting

Posted on July 9, 2018
Categories: Industry Insights
Tags: Fire

When fighting a fire or responding to an incident, every piece of information can be important in creating an effective response. From pre-planning data pulled from inspections, to knowledge of the roadways, landscape, and access points, firefighters, commanders, and incident response teams can utilize the additional perspective respond more quickly, safely, and effectively.  

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Technology at a Glance

Today’s drones –  also more formally called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – are readily available to provide imagery and video from a bird’s eye view. Flown remotely into the sky without a pilot, drones range in size, complexity, and capability, but generally serve the purpose of taking and sharing images, video, and information from overhead.  

How Does UAS Technology Work?

At its basic level, a drone is an remote-controlled, unmanned aerial vehicle, usually with an attached camera that can broadcast live video back to its pilot who is flying the vehicle from the ground. Drones are typically lightweight and easy to maneuver, and because they offer a “first person” or bird’s-eye view to the pilot, they are easy to fly indoors, through terrain or other obstacles, or from higher heights.

Drones come in various sizes, depending on their intended purpose and the terrain they will be covering. Most drones incorporate at least one type of navigation system like GPS, which is especially important in search and rescue operations or when creating 3D maps. Additionally, most drones include several “return to home” options that help ensure the device will fly back to the pilot when needed. Some also include obstacle avoidance technology and infrared capabilities to seek out body heat, all very helpful in emergency response.

While the drone interface can be quite simple, the technology inside a drone typically includes an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and other complex technologies to make the flight as smooth as possible. Many public safety organizations are exploring ways to harness UAS technology, such as using them to deliver medical supplies, determine rescue routes in remote locations, and even serve as hovering cell service hubs during disasters.

Examples of UAS Used for Firefighting

For the fire service, the use of drones has the potential to make a large impact in how effectively a team can respond to disasters or accidents. For example: 

  • Drones can offer an aerial perspective on a wildland fire, visualizing the spread of a fire and helping identify areas of evacuation and most urgent needs for response or water drops.  
  • For urban settings, drones can offer command a visual perspective on a rooftop setting or help spot civilians trapped on upper floors of tall buildings.  
  • For search and rescue operations, drones can cover area at a faster rate since they are not hindered by landscape. Drones can help searchers understand the terrain they will be covering and help narrow down the area to be searched. 
  • In situations of natural disasters like floods or earthquakes, drones can help scan not easily accessible areas for survivors and also offer perspective on possible routes or obstacles that must be avoided. 
  • In cases of large-scale traffic accidents, drones can show the scale of the event and help form possible options for rerouting traffic flow during response. 
  • During situations involving hazardous materials, drones can identify areas that should be avoided by responders, or to identify the most urgent needs for containment. 
  • Drones utilizing infrared technology can help locate survivors in low visibility or dense vegetation. 
  • In the future, more advanced drones may be potentially leveraged to actually participate in firefighting efforts, including water drops or supply deliveries. 

Additionally, the images and videos recorded by drones can be utilized after an incident for fire investigations, critiques, and training purposes. The information is also helpful in understanding where additional assistance from federal organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) might be needed. The extra data offered by drones offers benefits to the fire service in seemingly unlimited areas. 

That said, the use of drones is not without restriction and must be approached with a full understanding of what purchasing and using one entails. While many departments are exploring the use of drones, it is important to be fully educated on the needs and responsibilities attached to owning and using a drone. For example, the use of drones today comes with a list of restrictions, including several from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In fact, the FAA has an entire section in its website devoted to information on drones, including how to register your drone and restrictions and guidelines for operating. 

Special exceptions and waivers may be obtained by fire services in the time of emergency, allowing firefighting drones to be flown in circumstances not normally approved, like at night, beyond visual line of sight, or even temporarily in airspace. It’s important to be aware of existing restrictions and educating yourself on how to obtain these waivers so that no time is lost in the case of an emergency. 

Additionally, it’s vital to exercise your due diligence in researching and understanding the best drone for your agency. Drones today offer a wide range of recording devices, data collection, flight range and operation hours, and price tags can range from $200 to $2 million. You’ll also want to be sure to fully train your team on the operation of the vehicle, and be sure there is someone on staff whose responsibilities include the upkeep and maintenance of the drone. Proper planning for storing the drone, and outlining SOP for its use is of utmost importance as well. 

It’s also necessary to understand how privacy and legal issues are involved in the operation of the drone. You may consider reaching out to your local law enforcement agencies to see which may already be operating a drone program and determine if it makes sense to develop a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to utilize their drone for fire department needs. 

While the technologies and regulations of drone usage continue to evolve, there’s no doubt that the potential for assisting fire fighting and first response efforts is considerable. With the right preparation and training, drones may very well be instrumental in saving lives, both for the civilian population and the firehouse, for years to come.