Drones in the fire service: Expanding operational uses

Fire department drones, already making an impact in search and rescue and aerial surveillance, are poised to change emergency response as technology advances


With public safety usage and applications exploding, fire department drones are poised to be the next technology to redefine emergency response. FireRescue1’s special coverage series – Emergency response in the drone age – takes an in-depth look at considerations for fire departments looking to implement a UAS program.

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As technology advances and prices drop, the uses of drones in fire service operations are multiplying exponentially.

We spoke with two experts in emergency response unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to get the inside track on how drones are being and will be used in fire service operations as more departments adopt eyes in the sky.

Two experts discuss how drones are being and will be used in fire service operations as more departments adopt eyes in the sky. (Photo/Pixabay)
Two experts discuss how drones are being and will be used in fire service operations as more departments adopt eyes in the sky. (Photo/Pixabay)

Gene Robinson is the owner and president of RPFlightSystems, Inc. and the non-profit RPSearch Services in Wimberley, Texas. He has been flying unmanned aircraft for search and rescue/recovery since 2005, visiting 39 states and four countries. 

Gabe Graveline is a firefighter/paramedic in Tulsa, Okla. He grew up building and flying remote control airplanes and eventually became a manned airplane pilot. His passion for aviation has led him to gain experience flying diverse types of UAVs for business and public safety. Graveline is the lead pilot for the Tulsa Fire Department UAS program, as well as the Oklahoma Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue Team.

They shared their perspective on drone deployment in package delivery, search and rescue and communications.

Post floor recovery and communications

The 2015 Texas Memorial Day Floods have been labeled a millennial flood, surpassing severe 500-year flood standards. “The infrastructure for our town of Wimberly was completely wiped out,” Robinson. “When the flood waters receded, we used our drones for a lot of tasks, not just aerial surveys.”

One of those tasks included using drones to assist the electrical service companies in getting their transmission lines restrung across the Blanco River. “We used our drones to stretch mule lines across the river that allowed those companies to then pull the new lines across the river,” Robinson said.

That was just one of the innovative uses for drones used in the post-flood recovery. With hardline and wireless communication infrastructure destroyed as well, drones were employed to create a basic communications network. “We would attach a cellphone to the drone, enter a text message, hit send and then launch the drone,” Robinson said. “When it got up around 400 feet and could get service from a distant tower, the message would get delivered.”

When OK TF1 deployed to the Austin, Texas, area in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, drones were deployed to survey hurricane-stricken areas for the presence of hazardous materials. “We teamed up with the folks from a company in Austin, Signature Science, and attached their sampling devices to the drones,” Graveline said. “We were able to collect liquid samples, along with powder samples (using the drone’s rotors to stir up the substances) which were then flown back to the designated sample collection and testing area.”

Current state of drones in the fire service

According to Robinson, the delivery function of drones is expanding rapidly. “I think that the fire service is really at the forefront in package delivery,” Robinson said. “During that 2015 flood, we used drones to deliver body bags, AEDs and a host of other equipment that our drones were capable of carrying.” The drones used had a typical payload capacity of 15-20 pounds.

“As the technology continues to improve, and the price of drones comes down, we’re going to see drones in the fire service capable of carrying a couple of hundred pounds,” Robinson said. “It’s going to be a game-changer for wildland firefighting and search and rescue. Those agencies will be using drones as their mules to get equipment and supplies into remote areas and then recover them.”

Robinson also foretells better usage of drones as the “eye in the sky” for incident commanders at structural fires. “We see many departments now using drones for that purpose, but not as effectively as they could be,” Robinson said. “We’ve developed guidelines on how and where drones should be deployed to give that incident commander the best possible visual information for what’s really happening.”

Future potential for drones in the fire service

Industry leaders agree hybrid drones are the up-and-coming tool for the fire service. Most drones in use today are powered with electrical motors, which limit the aircraft’s flight time depending upon battery capacity and how charged the battery is when the drone is deployed.

A hybrid drone uses a small internal combustion engine to run a generator which charges the battery (just like a railroad locomotive, only much smaller). “Hybrids are going to have longer flight times which means they can cover more geography, for say a search and rescue mission, or for surveillance and sampling for hazmat like we saw in Austin,” Graveline said.

According to Robinson, hybrid technology will also be the driving force behind larger drones with more payload capabilities. Those larger payloads and longer flight times are going to increase the operational capabilities of drones. “We’re already seeing hybrid drones that are doing many of the jobs that could only be done using a manned-helicopter,” Robinson said.

“You’ve got the visual, you can have thermal imaging, and you can attach a radio repeater to improve your radio system coverage,” Robinson said. “So, you’ve got a team working on a roof and the entire time you can be seeing what they’re seeing – and with the thermal imaging camera, see where developing hotspots are across the entire roof long before the fire can progress and put them in jeopardy. And you can have that capability at a fraction of what a helicopter costs to maintain and operate.”

4 key measures to implement when starting to use drones in the fire service

Robinson and Graveline were adamant on these key points for a department getting into drone operations:

  1. Develop an aviation division. Make a commitment to developing an aviation division within your department. Don’t just buy the hardware and put it out there without a program.
  2. Buyer Beware. “We see many individuals and companies sprouting up, claiming to have the knowledge and experience to train people to operate drones,” Robinson said. “Both Gabe and I have been at this for a lot of years and knowing how to fly a drone doesn’t make you an expert or a trainer. Do your research, ask for references and check with other departments who’ve worked with an individual or company.”
  3. Define the mission. Know what you want your drone and its operator to be able to do. And then purchase the right drone for your mission. “We typically see this as one of the big pitfalls when an agency purchases a drone,” Robinson said. “I know of a law enforcement agency that purchased 16 drones that had movie-quality cameras, which the vendor heavily emphasized as a feature, but they didn’t fit the intended mission.”
  4. Know and understand your environment. “There’s a huge difference operating a drone in a hot and dry desert environment like Arizona as opposed to a cold and wet environment like New England,” Graveline said.

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