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Research: Drone video is effective in identifying multiple vehicle collision hazards

Investigators found no difference in paramedic student recognition of scene hazards between a walk-around size-up and UAV flyover video


All public safety personnel have an obligation to learn the potential uses for UAV technology, including drawbacks and regulations regarding use.

Photo/University of Prince Edward Island

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.


Emergency responders have proposed numerous uses for drones to size-up an incident, deliver supplies or look for a missing person, and there have been many success anecdotes reported by departments. Researchers in Prince Edward Island, Canada, compared the effectiveness and time to conduct a multi-vehicle collision scene size-up with a drone video versus the standard practice of direct visualization and walk around.

Their research, “Comparison of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Technology Versus Standard Practice in Identification of Hazards at a Mass Casualty Incident Scenario by Primary Care Paramedic Students” was published in Disaster and Public Health Preparedness.

Twenty-one University of Prince Edward Island primary care paramedic students participated in the prospective observational cohort study. Students completed a standardized 30-minute scene lecture on hazard identification in mass casualty and disaster incidents. Next, the students were given an hour introduction to unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology by a UAV pilot.

Researchers created a full-scale 10-car collision with seven hazards:

  1. Power line
  2. Fuel spill
  3. Fire
  4. Active shooter
  5. Unstable vehicle
  6. Hazardous material placard
  7. Potential explosive

Students were randomized into either a UAV group or Standard Practice (SP) group. After a short briefing, students were directed to the scene or the UAV ground station. SP participants walked the scene verbalizing hazards to a researcher. UAV participants directed the UAV pilot and verbalized hazards as they saw them on a video monitor to a researcher. The time to complete hazard identification was measured, as well as the order hazards were identified.

Participants in both groups identified all of the hazards. Students in the UAV group had a mean time to identify all seven hazards of three minutes and 41 seconds. Students who walked the scene identified the hazards in a mean time of 2 minutes 34 seconds. This difference was not statistically significant.

Memorable quotes on scene size-up with a UAV

The researchers acknowledged several limitations with the study, including a small convenience sample of participants. Here are four memorable quotes from the research article:

“Despite a proliferation of UAV technology, we were unable to find any studies that compared UAV technology to standard practice (SP) in this context.”

“This study did not demonstrate a statistically significant difference in the time to hazard identification between the UAV and SP group.”

“We demonstrated that this technology allowed the primary care paramedic student to correctly identify all hazards from a safe distance without exposure that could cause harm.”

“This study demonstrated the accurate, safe, and feasible use of UAV technology in the identification of hazards at a MCI scenario by primary care paramedic students.”

Key takeaways of unmanned aircraft system training for police, EMS and fire

Here are four takeaways for educators, training officers and incident commanders on use of an unmanned aircraft system for scene-size-up and other public safety applications:

1. Replicate methodology for UAS size-up training

This research describes an easy-to-replicate or -modify curriculum for teaching paramedic students and other emergency responders about hazard identification and using UAS video, versus a 360-walk-around for scene size-up. Educators and training officers are encouraged to follow or customize the methodology described by the researchers for upcoming mass casualty incident full-scale exercises.

2. Sequence education activities for student success

Every student identified all seven hazards, regardless of their size-up methodology. The progression or sequence of activities sets students up for a successful learning experience.

The instructional method of “hear one, see one and do one” is a tried and true practice for paramedic, firefighter and police officer education. How well do your regular training activities match this sequence?

  • Classroom instruction to teach or refresh foundational knowledge through lecture, group discussion, case review and other types of active learning.
  • Demonstration and supervised practice of skills through use of video, low- and high-fidelity simulation and functional competency assessments.
  • Full-scale exercises and team leader assessments for students to put all of the different skills together into a continuous and dynamic assessment.

3. Hazard identification is not always this easy

Students quickly identified all of the hazards because they knew they were being assessed on identification of hazards. If the stated goal of the training had been patient triage with the SALT method or traffic incident management, it’s possible students would not have identified all of the hazards because their focus would have been elsewhere.

Law enforcement researchers have looked at hazard recognition in academy recruits and experienced officers. A study conducted at the University of Illinois Police Training Institute involving 100 recruits and 75 veteran officers found that many officers in both groups failed to notice a gun at any point during a simulated stop.

Research of patient care documentation used paramedics with body-worn cameras in a simulation which had multiple complexities and stressful stimuli, such as firearms, drug paraphernalia and a distraught family member. While watching the body-worn camera video it is obvious that some of the hazards go unrecognized by the paramedics.

4. UAS education for paramedics and EMTs

UAS video, either owned or operated by public safety personnel, or made available to an incident commander from a bystander or media partner, is likely to be an increasingly common occurrence. All public safety personnel, including paramedics and EMTs, have an obligation to learn the potential uses for UAV technology, including drawbacks and regulations regarding use.

The study required students to direct a UAV operator over and around the simulated MCI. The researchers propose cross-training paramedics as UAV operators. Another option would be pre-deployment or just-in time training on preferred terms and instructions for directing the drone operator.

Have you incorporated drones into incident size-up training for students or experienced firefighters, paramedics and police officers? Share your successes and lessons learned in the comments.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on PoliceOne, FireRescue1, Corrections1, EMS1 and Gov1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on Twitter or LinkedIn and submit an article idea or ask questions by emailing him at