Q&A: The future impact of drones on fire and emergency services

UAS are becoming an integral component of multi-faceted response plans, helping to protect firefighters, first responders and communities


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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The reports of drones being deployed to aid in search and rescue operations, to survey the extent of wildfires, or to get an eye in the sky perspective of a multi-story fire – once extraordinary – are now becoming routine.

In Orange County, Orlando, Fla., the Fire Rescue Department’s fledgling UAS program has already benefited members of the community. In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the department’s UAS helped guide responders in conducting rapid searches of flooded areas and surveying damaged neighborhoods to better assist in the recovery effort.

Chief Otto Drozd III sat down with FireRescue1 to share his perspective on the future of drones in the fire service. (Courtesy photo)
Chief Otto Drozd III sat down with FireRescue1 to share his perspective on the future of drones in the fire service. (Courtesy photo)

Chief Otto Drozd III, EFO, CFO, fire chief of the Orange County Fire Rescue Department, is a 31-year veteran of the fire service and a Harvard fellow, says this is just the beginning. Chief Drozd, an IAFC member since 2002, is the current president of the Metro Fire Chiefs Association Section and a member of the Executive Fire Officers Section. Drozd is the IAFC’s appointment to the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and is a 2018 candidate for IAFC 2nd vice president.

In 2015, he became a member of the IAFC’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Task Force under the leadership of U.S. Fire Administrator Keith Bryant, designated to explore the opportunities and challenges UAS might present for the fire service. The work resulted in the development of a comprehensive toolkit outlining potential fire service drone tactics, policy, technology, research, regulations and operations. The Task Force also established the framework for the development of NFPA 2400, Standard for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Used for Public Safety Operations.

Drozd sat down with FireRescue1 to share his perspective on the future of drones in the fire service.

FireRescue1: What are the biggest operational capabilities of UAS in the fire service?

Chief Otto Drozd III: UAS use has multi-dimensional applications to the fire service and the citizens we protect. They can be quickly deployed to enhance our emergency operations and increase firefighter safety. Some of the uses include:

  • Scene size-up.
  • Structure fire.
  • Hazardous materials response.
  • Urban interface-wildland fires.
  • Damage assessments.
  • Air monitoring.
  • EMS response/automatic external defibrillator deployment.
  • Wide area searches.
  • Water rescue.
  • Pre-incident planning.
  • Transportation accidents.
  • Special event planning/monitoring.
  • Chemical detection.

How has their use been disseminating in the fire service?

I believe more emergency response organizations are realizing the added value of UAS programs on multiple fronts – the impact that they can have on their multi-faceted response plans, and the role UAS can play in protecting our firefighters, first responders and communities.

Orange County Fire Rescue initiated explorative use of UAS and the potential which they could have on our organization. Given the cost versus benefits that a UAS program brings, OCFRD began by training two of our members to become AV pilots in 2016. As a result of their dedication, our program now includes an FAA 107 Certificate of Authorization, seven licensed pilots, and 10 UAVs made up of eight rotor-wing and two fixed-wing aircrafts.

What are the biggest issues for a department to consider before implementing a UAS program?

There are several important considerations that should be vetted prior to program implementation. These include an understanding of federal, state and local laws associated with flying a UAS, appropriate licensing and establishing clear program parameters – essentially, the what, when, where and who of the UAS program.

Which missions will the UAS be used for? When will they be used? Where will they be used (single jurisdiction versus multi jurisdiction through established agreements)? Who will be authorized to deploy the UAS? These are all relevant concerns.

Other considerations include public records retention, data sharing and community perception. Program marketing/community outreach is essential, and support from elected and administrative leadership is key.

What factors should a department take into consideration when purchasing a drone?

A department should conduct an evaluation of its response plan and decide where and how a UAS program would fit in. Once this has been established, the department should research the current technology, and budget for the appropriate equipment to maximize benefit.

UAS come in many sizes with varying capabilities; therefore, a quality needs assessment can help prevent a department from budgeting for and purchasing equipment that isn’t well suited for the anticipated needs of the organization and community.

How does use of UAS differ in different departments?

I believe a UAS program would benefit all fire and emergency service organizations, including career, volunteer and combination departments. The difference would be the topography, climate and level of urbanization of the department’s jurisdiction.

For example, a small rural fire department may deploy a UAS program to enhance a Wilderness Search and Rescue Team or for fighting brush/ forest fires, while a larger metropolitan area may deploy a program to enhance its ability to conduct pre-fire planning by digitally mapping (2D and 3D modeling of buildings) specific target hazards to increase familiarity and provide valuable on-scene information.

This is why a needs assessment must be done prior to the development of a UAS program.

What does the future of UAS usage in the fire service look like?

I believe we are just scratching the surface of UAS capabilities. UAS have the capability of delivering an AED device to assist a citizen in cardiac arrest. The UAV could be flown over heavy traffic from a central location, saving valuable time and ultimately saving lives. Being able to deliver an AED or other life- saving medical equipment to a person in distress without the impediment of navigating roads or traffic is exciting. The time saved by taking a straight path to a citizen with a medical emergency is invaluable to the patient’s outcome. This will be the next step in community-based CPR engagement systems.

Additionally, future UAS programs will be able to provide valuable information to the incident commander to fight a fire, identify potential hazards or see areas that could otherwise not be seen from the ground.

I believe that in the future, we may see a UAS on top of every emergency response unit performing everything from the initial size-up to assisting with a medical emergency, a hazardous materials incident, or to pre-fire plan buildings in their jurisdiction. As we continue to explore the utility of UAS in the fire and emergency service arena, I’m excited by the uses we haven’t yet discovered that will enhance firefighter safety and our community response capabilities.

What else should fire chiefs know about UAS implementation or potential?

Understanding the various laws, licensing, limitations and capabilities is paramount to a successful program. Depending on the size and scope, operating a UAS program may necessitate the assignment of someone with the sole task of developing and running the program rather than a person who has multiple roles/responsibilities.

A UAS program requires laborious record keeping, considering the constant FAA rule changes, submitting paperwork for airspace approvals, budgeting and purchasing, maintenance and records upkeep, developing training objectives, interaction with other UAS teams and night operations.

Many robust programs are beginning to develop across the fire and emergency service spectrum. My experience has been that those agencies that have developed programs are some of the best resources to identify the challenges and opportunities associated with starting a UAS program and developing the appropriate training curriculum. Another good resource for implementing a drone program is the IAFC’s UAS Toolkit.

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