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FRI 2017 Quick Take: Unmanned aircraft systems in the fire service

Are you following the letter of the law when using unmanned aircraft systems in fire operations?


By Kerri Hatt, FireRescue1 Senior Editor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Here’s a quick summary of today’s session on “Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the Fire Service,” by Kyle Snyder, North Carolina State University, NextGen Air Transportation Consortium (NGAT) director; and Wayne Bailey, North Carolina Department of Insurance, Office of State Fire Marshal, at FRI 2017.

Snyder and Bailey facilitated a discussion on the NGAT program, unmanned aircraft systems integration support and the fire service applications of UAS. (AP Photo)
Snyder and Bailey facilitated a discussion on the NGAT program, unmanned aircraft systems integration support and the fire service applications of UAS. (AP Photo)

Snyder and Bailey covered the latest rules and regulations governing unmanned aircraft systems with an emphasis on providing attendees direction for UAS usage, help with specking out an UAS, sample policies to implement back in their jurisdictions and what to expect in the future – not to mention keeping their departments out of the negative media spotlight for improper usage.

Memorable quotes, takeaways on UAS usage in the fire service

Snyder and Bailey facilitated a discussion on the NGAT program, unmanned aircraft systems integration support and the fire service applications of UAS. Here are the top takeaways.

  • The FAA defines UAS or model aircraft based on the mission. It doesn’t matter the type of aircraft or what it’s equipped with.
  • Autonomous personal aircraft is on the horizon.
  • Most Part 107 restrictions can be waivered, (e.g., night ops, flying about 400 feet).
  • Think of the team you’re putting together. Someone with filmmaking experience may be more valuable that someone with years of experience practicing hand controlling aircraft. A data analyst, someone who knows how to do thermal imaging, is also valuable.
  • One audience member shared how his department was using UAS as a visual aid to watch fire balls in controlled burns while fighting wildfires.
  • Hobbyists are not allowed to fly:
    • At night
    • Above 400 feet
    • Over people
    • Beyond their line of sight
  • “We want to make sure if your department ends up on the front page of the newspaper, it’s because of something heroic you did. Not because you were operating one of these and it went through the windshield of a vehicle,” Bailey said.

Perform public outreach on UAS best practices

“Awareness through communications equals transparency,” Snyder noted, encouraging a time‐sensitive public affairs campaign utilizing communication channels like social media, Department of Transportation UAS websites, and drone club communications.

He recommended using these channels to educate the target audience on safe UAS operations and the consequences of unauthorized interference with incident operations, as well as to provide updates on rules, legal issues, emergency event restrictions and changes in policy.

The future of UAS in the fire service is upon us

Bailey related how earlier this year, for the first time, the FDNY used a drone to help fight a building fire. The Incident Commander was able to get a birds‐eye view of the burning six‐story residential building and help direct firefighters on the scene as they worked to extinguish a 4‐alarm blaze in the Bronx.

The FDNY’s eyes in the sky weighs in at approximately 8 pounds and sports both high‐definition and infrared cameras, which are used to detect hot spots on a structure’s roof that would normally be out of sight. A remote station at the scene feeds the images directly to the incident commander and senior fire department decision makers.

In this incident, the incident commander on the ground was able to view the firefighters as they were conducting roof top operations, venting the roof and putting water on the fire, and was able to see the roof beginning to collapse, prompting quick response.

Bailey also shared examples from Topeka, Kan. To help determine the cause and origin of a fire, investigators are able to use unmanned aircrafts to survey a fire scene to identify burn patterns that would otherwise be difficult to spot from ground‐level.

In Mesa, Ariz., the fire department is using drones on commercial structure fires, residential structure fires and arson investigations. The department has four drones, including two used specifically for training. A single outfitted unit with accessories costs around $2,500.  Since October, they’ve been deployed on around 25 calls.

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