Love them or hate them, drones are becoming ubiquitous in American society.
Call them drones, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), they're sold at nearly every big-box electronics retailer, and scores of amateur drone pilots have made their way into YouTube fame, infamy and more than likely your local community.
In the fire service, using a UAS is quickly becoming a tool limited only by the imagination. Streaming realtime aerial video allows an incident commander to make informed decisions quickly over incidents large and small. A drone equipped with sensors—ranging from thermal imaging to hazardous-gas detection—can help identify areas of concern faster; in search and rescue missions, drones can help with surgical precision and unmatched efficiency.
It’s an easy mental leap to see how much good drones can do for our communities and why so many fire departments are looking to purchase or have already purchased a drone. But without proper planning and procedures in place, many early-adopting departments are finding themselves with an underused or even unused aircraft, and as a result, a potential lifesaving tool has become a glorified paperweight.
The key to a successful and sustainable drone program is to have a supporting infrastructure in place before that first flight. Departments need to develop standard operating procedures that include:
- Addressing public privacy concerns
- Supporting budgets
- Preparing RFPs to purchase the right equipment that includes maintenance agreements
- Training their pilots and support staff
- Requesting the proper waivers from the FAA
- Being certain they have the correct insurance coverage in place for the department’s UAS operations
In aviation, pilots train and practice for the worst possible scenarios knowing that something bad can always happen when you least expect it. All experienced pilots have had their share of uncomfortable moments behind the controls. Fire departments need to remember that drones are real aircraft, size notwithstanding.
Non-emergency operations can always be rescheduled, delayed or cancelled, with no one being any worse off or hurt. Not so for pilots in the fire service; when lives are on the line, departments need highly confident, well-trained and proficient pilots who can navigate the whirlwind of controlled airspace, weather and equipment to achieve the mission safely every time.
There’s a wealth of automated equipment out there to make a pilot’s life easier, but none of them are a suitable replacement for good judgement, experience and proficiency.
Drones, like any other piece of equipment in the fire service, are not effective without the skill of the operator. With a skilled and properly supported operator, rapid deployment and almost immediate results are possible. Without it, at best a department will not reap the full benefit of the tool; at worst, a black eye that may not be overcome anytime soon.
Additionally, UAS operation within the fire service requires that everyone, from the incident commander to the boots on the ground, hase some understanding of how the UAS integrates into the operation and how the UAS can be used to help make realtime decisions during an incident in the most effective way possible.
There are many things to consider when looking into starting a UAS program, with four key areas of consideration:
- Policy – When and how the drone is to be used. Policy will be driven by your municipality and the community you serve. Some communities embrace the new technology, some look at it with pause and each case will dictate the time and effort to develop those policies.
- Regulations and Operations – Compliant and safe operation. The FAA’s Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), Part 107, governs unmanned aircraft, with a waiver process available for public (municipal) use. But like any federal regulation, the FARs can be confusing, especially if you’re not used to them.
- Technology – What the right vehicle is for you. There are a lot of choices out there and the combination of cost, training, payload and tactics will drive this choice. So knowing how you’re allowed to use UAS by policy, what your budget is and what you want to accomplish tactically will affect your decisions.
- Tactics – How to use on scene. What do you want to accomplish with the UAS? Metering? Surveillance? Entering IDLH? How do you train to integrate with your firefighters and your officers?
So how can you successfully implement a UAS program, even if you’ve never worked on a flight program before?
- Search online for a reputable UAS training academy. They can help you navigate the training and certification procedures.
This is an exciting time when it comes to new technology like UAS, but it’s also a challenging one. Making smart decisions when starting the conversation about adding UAS to your toolbox of resources will go a long way to maximizing the opportunity and gaining acceptance in your community.