Eyes in the sky: How firefighters can use drones during all-hazards incidents

Reviewing the sUAS tactical and strategic applications on at fire and emergency scenes


By Anthony Tisdall and Bear Afkhami

More and more fire bays across the country are starting to make room for possibly the lightest piece of apparatus in terms of weight, but perhaps heaviest in terms of regulations. There are numerous applications for drones, or small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), during fire/rescue operations, once the hurdles of setting up a responsible program are overcome.

Tactical and strategic use of drones

There are numerous applications for drones, or small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), during fire/rescue operations, once the hurdles of setting up a responsible program are overcome. (Photo/JMA Solutions)
There are numerous applications for drones, or small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), during fire/rescue operations, once the hurdles of setting up a responsible program are overcome. (Photo/JMA Solutions)

Fire/rescue leaders should think of an sUAS as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tool with the ability to provide command officers and emergency operations centers (EOCs) information that was previously either unavailable or extremely difficult to obtain in a safe and timely manner.

The tools, including accessories, of sUAS deployed within fire/rescue operations include more than a simple “eye in the sky” aid, and expand to four primary tactical and strategic cases:

  1. Real-time unfiltered visual observation: This type of observation can be transmitted to either unit officers at the incident, command officers in the field or stakeholders, such as command officers, PIOs, political staff, etc., at an activated EOC.
  2. Thermal imaging: The latest field within the intelligence community to be developed includes the usage of measurements and signatures intelligence (MASINT).
  3. Recording: The ability of post-event investigators and training officers to review incident response history is an invaluable tool. Recordings can be used to evaluate and teach best practices in a way that has not been available before.
  4. Logistics: sUAS are increasingly becoming a tool for transporting small objects from one point to another, saving time and entering harder to reach places.

Drone applications by event type

With technologies becoming more efficient and less expensive, the application of sUAS has grown for urban, rural, suburban and wildland fire/rescue.

Structural fires: As units arrive on the scene of a structural fire, a command officer or command officer assistant can prep and launch an sUAS directly from the command vehicle. The sUAS would take flight to capture standard imagery in order to more fully and quickly perform a scene size-up of all exposures, quadrants and sides. The flight can also include thermal imaging analysis of the structural integrity of the roof quickly prior to crews deploying to ventilate. Thermal imaging also can assist in determining which quadrants have the hottest heat signatures and what, if any, extensions exists. With all this intelligence, attack lines can more accurately be deployed.

Brush fires: The containment of brush fires can be made more efficient with the deployment of an sUAS. An aircraft can more quickly and fully provide an assessment of longer ranges and more hostile conditions, without the need to commit firefighters as observers. Instead, fire crews can use the intelligence gathered to prepare containment perimeters and attack lines.

Search and rescue: The deployment of sUAS to assist in search and rescue operations provides a fundamental benefit to life safety. As mentioned previously, sUAS can go where humans cannot or can do so faster. In addition, air operations can identify heat signatures of victims, making it particularly beneficial in situations where the victim is in an unresponsive or incapacitated state.

Mass casualty: Scene size-up is critical at a mass casualty event. An sUAS can help where resources need to be both initially and continuously determined in the most efficient manners. A broader panoramic initial assessment can be made using sUAS, and the aircraft can hover in order to provide repeated assessments. The recording can be performed for post-incident analysis as well as training for future events.

Hazmat: Incidents involving hazardous materials require a delicate balance between prioritizing responder safety and response to the incident. Without exposure to the responder, an sUAS can safety provide the reading of placards, identification of substances and determination of downwind/downstream/downhill directions. Not only will an sUAS be deployed to hot, warm and cold zones, but it can provide multiple measurements and signatures readings. These readings include basics such as CO2 to more immediately dangerous gases, liquids, corrosives, etc.

Post-event analysis: Post-fire or hazmat investigations can benefit from an eye-in-the-sky view of damage assessments, and investigators can use the recordings of the actual incident to assist in their efforts.

Drone benefits

When it comes to safety, sUAS offers can capture intelligence, with reduced exposure for first responders. When launched, an sUAS can establish unsafe zones and parameters for rescuers to avoid. For example, this includes the ability to quickly inform the tower crew on the way to a roof that the structural integrity of the roof could lead to collapse.

Drones helps with efficiency related to determining best methods of approach to different incident responses. For example, an sUAS can be deployed over a structural or wildland fire and begin producing intelligence within minutes.

As costs savings are concerned, the deployment and capability of one sUAS for intelligence-gathering purposes can equal the observation capabilities of several responders deployed on foot or on apparatus. This saves jurisdictions money by distributing resources more efficiently. Not having to place responders in hostile conditions without adequate intelligence also saves jurisdictions money in health and benefits costs.

As drones become more commonplace in the fire service, it is important for fire/rescue leaders to evaluate how drones could fit into their equipment cache for emergency responses.

About the authors

Tony Tisdall has over 35 years of experience in air traffic control and air traffic flow management and has served as air traffic manager at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System Command Center (ATCSCC) in Warrenton, Virginia. He is currently vice president of global affairs and aviation solutions at JMA Solutions, an FAA contractor.

Bear Afkhami has over 10 years of service in the emergency services sector in numerous fire service, continuity of operations plan (COOP), military and intelligence roles. Afkhami is currently capture manager at JMA Solutions and serves as partnership chair for InfraGard Maryland, an FBI-private sector partnership to protect critical infrastructure.

Tisdall and Afkhami lead JMA Labs’ sUAS and UAS Traffic Management (UTM) Initiative to promote the safe implementation and management of sUAS within critical infrastructure sectors.

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