What to know before buying a fire department drone

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Robert Avsec

Is there any better size up of a wildland fire or a train derailment with a hazardous-materials release than a view from 1,000 feet up in a helicopter? Talk about getting the big picture, right?

Who could have ever predicted that one day every piece of fire apparatus in a fire department’s fleet would have its own helicopter?

But that’s exactly the potential situation for fire departments everywhere because of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. But why should a fire department wait until a fire company or a battalion chief arrives at the emergency scene before getting eyes in the sky?

It’s not going to be very long before drones become first-alarm resources that are launched simultaneously with responding engines, trucks and chief officers. The initial size-up information will come from the drone to those ground resources having access to the images via their on-board computer, tablet or smartphone.

In the meantime, let’s focus on what you and your department need to know about getting operational benefits from drones that can be carried aboard fire apparatus or command vehicles.

Drones are available and ready for a multitude of uses by fire departments, and before you and your department jump in with both feet make sure you’re in compliance with the laws and regulations pertinent to drone use by fire departments.

The Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction for any object of a certain size and flying at a certain altitude. Further, the FAA requires a license and a case-by-case review of the proposed use by commercial or business entities and emergency services.

The following provisions are contained in the FAA’s Small UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Rule (14 CFR part 107).

Pilot requirements

Yes, the FAA regulations refer to the operator of a UAS as the pilot, and the pilot must be at least 16 years of age. All pilots must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved testing center.

Lastly, the individual must be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration. See Becoming a Pilot for test prep materials and information on testing center locations.

A person who already holds a pilot certificate issued under 14 CFR part 61 and has successfully completed a flight review within the previous 24 months can complete a part 107 online training course to satisfy this requirement.

UAS requirements

The UAS cannot exceed 55 pounds and must be registered with the FAA. Registration also can be done online.

Operating rules for a UAS

UASs may only operate in Class G airspace (1-mile visibility, clear of clouds, and only daylight hours) and the pilot must always have the aircraft in visual line-of-sight. The pilot must ensure that the UAS is always kept under 400 feet and that its flight speed is kept under 100 mph.

The pilot must not fly the UAS over people and must immediately yield the right-of-way to any manned aircraft. Finally, the pilot must not operate the UAS from a moving vehicle.

Government entities

Government entities or organizations such as law enforcement agencies, public universities, state governments, local municipalities have two options for flying UAS.

The first option is that fire department within a local government could operate its UAS under the small UAS rule (as described above) and follow all rules under 14 CFR part 107, including aircraft and pilot requirements.

The second option is to obtain a blanket public certificate of waiver or authorization (COA). This would permit the department to operate its UAS within Class G airspace, engage in self-certification of its UAS pilots and the option to obtain emergency COAs under special circumstances.

Using a UAS gives a fire department the capability to evaluate a volatile situation more safely and efficiently without committing personnel and exposing them to risk. UAS can be equipped with high-resolution, live-streaming daylight cameras, thermal imaging cameras and gas sensors to take the guesswork out of sizing up scene safety.

UASs have already proven their value for hazardous materials detection and mitigation, assessment of wildland fires and ground search operations. These are some other very practical uses for UASs.

  • Getting a more rapid 360-degree assessment around a burning structure, especially when that structure may be part of a larger complex with multiple exposures.
  • Rapid assessment of damage created by natural and man-made disasters.
  • Using UASs to evaluate firefighter performance during training activities.
  • Using a UASs, equipped with RFID asset tracking, to keep track of people and equipment on an emergency scene.
  • Using UASs to set backfires in remote locations to more effectively control wildland fires.

Before you buy

We all know that any equipment that’s carried aboard fire apparatus and used by firefighters must be rugged. You’ll want to ensure that you’re not buying a model more suited for the weekend flyer.

So, before you purchase that first UAS for your department, do your research. Look for reputable companies and talk with them about their product. Get some actual flight demonstrations replicating probable fireground scenarios discussed earlier.

While doing your research to find the right make and model for your department, start the process to acquire the COA from the FAA.

Develop a standard operating guideline for the care, maintenance and use of the UAS by qualified members of your department. The FAA’s Advisory Circular, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, AC 107-2, contains the information and requirements necessary to develop that SOG. Pay particularly close attention to Chapter 7, sUAS Maintenance and Inspection, in the Advisory Circular.

Drones may not be a standard feature on new apparatus yet, but they are far more accessible to fire departments than they’ve ever been.

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