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7 ways drones could help first responders save more lives

Unmanned aerial vehicles could be the solution to challenges first responders face during deadly scenarios


Drones have the ability to respond and deliver emergency equipment faster than ground transportation.

Photo/U.S. Army by Angie DePuydt

By Megan Wells, FireRescue1 Contributor

Drones are still a delicate subject in the public safety world. For every early adopter, there is an opponent to the technology. There is, however, a strong argument that this technology is underutilized and can offer incredible benefits to first responders and save more lives.

It’s important to address how drones and other autonomous systems could be used in emergency or public safety scenarios.

1. Search and rescue

Perhaps the most obvious way drones can help assist first responders is with search and rescue. Drones have the ability to cover more ground more effectively.

In 2014, a drone helped locate an 82-year-old man who had been missing for three days. The drone searched a 200-acre field and located the man in 20 minutes.

Hearing of that rescue success makes it difficult to ignore the fate of Geraldine Largay, the 66-year-old hiker who got lost in the Appalachians. When Largay’s body was finally found, she was only two miles from the Appalachian Trail. Using a drone to provide aerial visibility for situations like this could mean the difference between life and death.

2. Police pursuits

Research has shown that police pursuits cause hundreds of deaths each year. According to a 2007 study, police pursuits and the reckless driving that accompanies them take about 232 lives each year. Innocent bystander, officers and suspects are all in danger.

There are technologies that help lessen the challenges and safety issues with police pursuits, but police drones would be a great improvement over current options.

Drones are more versatile than current air support, and more sophisticated than current GPS tracking devices. Drones could revolutionize pursuits by limiting the amount of pursuit vehicles on the road. Drones could create options for new pursuit techniques, provide better tactics for following suspects and potentially save more lives.

3. Ambulance drones

Drones have the ability to respond and deliver emergency equipment faster than ground transportation.

Paramedics in Canada are already using drones as part of their emergency response effort by using equipment capable of carrying medical devices as heavy as a defibrillator or as small as an EpiPen to deliver them remotely.

True first responders, whether that means bystanders or law enforcement, could have access to more tools faster, which would allow them to help victims more effectively until EMS arrives on scene.

4. Improve fire extinguisher technology

Drones already have a better ability than the naked eye for early detection when it comes to wildfires and high-rise flames. But drones can also be a huge asset when it comes to extinguishing fires, and in increasingly improved ways.

For example, two George Mason University students are aiming to design a device that uses soundwaves to extinguish fire. Their idea specifies using the technology with drones: Equip unmanned aerial vehicles with an extinguisher that works through soundwaves and send them into fires that are too dangerous for people to enter.

Soundwaves are in abundance, so running out of resources won’t be an issue, and firefighters remain safer by letting the drones tackle excessively dangerous work.

5. Infrared camera technology

Special infrared cameras strapped to drones could aid all first responders immensely.

A drone’s infrared technology can see through smoke, and drones can fly in some conditions that air tankers and humans cannot. For firefighters, infrared from an aerial viewpoint can help determine the hottest areas of a house fire (with more visibility than current technology provides) before entering.

Infrared can also help law enforcement officers enter locations where dangerous suspects are hiding. Infrared technology is already used in this way, alerting officers to the whereabouts of a suspect.

In fact, forward-looking infrared equipment mounted on a helicopter was a huge component in locating Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers. Once located via infrared, an armored vehicle with a robotic arm lifted the tarp that covered Tsarnaev. What if a drone could have handled both of these actions? Would it have been more efficient, faster or safer?

6. Disaster relief

Drones can help in a number of ways when it comes to disaster relief. Sending a drone into an affected area can give first responders a better understanding of the situation, help locate survivors, perform structural analysis, deliver supplies and equipment and help extinguish fires.

One of the largest issues following Hurricane Katrina was the slow response. The people of New Orleans were left without food, water and medical supplies while thousands crowded in the Superdome for up to five days after the storm.

While much of the delay was due to bureaucratic red tape, the scope of the disaster dramatically reduced the capacity for responders to use transportation to deliver supplies because they had difficulty reaching affected areas.

Drones can act as logistics support because they don’t need to rely on infrastructure for effective use, making it easier to deliver supplies quickly where needed.

7. Temporary telecommunications

Communication is central in organizing response efforts. Several examples in recent history have demonstrated how fragile our communication system is.

Glaring communications gaps were obvious during and after Hurricane Katrina. During the storm, winds reaching 140 mph crashed the electrical grid, cellular towers fell and the New Orleans area largely fell silent.

In these situations, drones can act as Wi-Fi hot spots, helping spread network coverage across areas where power lines or cellular towers may not be working properly.

Drones are becoming increasingly considered in a public safety setting, but as with most technology, departments can be slow to adopt. There are pros and cons for using unmanned aerial vehicles for response, but drones have the potential to be considered a top technology for public safety.

This article, originally published on December 27, 2016, has been updated