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A firefighter’s guide to UAS certification

New Federal Aviation Administration guidelines announced for fire departments


Part 107 details the requirements for remote pilot certification and responsibilities, as well as the operational limitations of the unmanned aircraft to be flown.


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As a first responder and member of a public agency, there are two ways to pursue proper authorization for flying unmanned aircraft or drones under the guidance and authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Fire service authorization

First, a firefighter can operate a small unmanned aircraft if they and their drone fly under 14 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 107, remote pilot and operations certification.

Secondly, Title 49 USC 40102 defines fire departments as a governmental function. This allows fire departments to apply for Public Aircraft Operations under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (PAO COA) within the guidelines for public agencies.

14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 107

Part 107 details the requirements for remote pilot certification and responsibilities, as well as the operational limitations of the unmanned aircraft to be flown.

The operational limits described in Part 107 deal with basic flight constraints, including a drone weighing less than 55 pounds and flown by line of sight. In addition, under Part 107, drone flights must consist of daylight operations only, flown at a maximum altitude of 400 feet and away from restricted airspace.

While Part 107 outlines allowable aircraft size and characteristics, flight limitations and airspace restrictions, it also describes the areas of operation where waiver authorizations are appropriate. The waiver authorizations referred to are the bedrock of civil aviation for the protection of life and property and are found in Section 333 of the same code.

Section 333 – Detailed waivers for certified remote pilots

Detailed exceptions and the entire authorization process under 14 CFR Part 107 are described in Section 333 and are critical in allowing for drone operations outside published restrictions. Most civil or governmental drone operations will require some waiver authorization including safety considerations and risk mitigation strategies in order to be in compliance for recognized operational conduct. Once approval of a waiver is adopted under the definitions cited in Section 333, it remains valid until it expires.

The advantages to securing a remote pilot’s license is the ability to operate an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) with waivers and without individual flight approval, the authority to supervise others flying, and the capability to obtain a temporary remote pilot certification while waiting for permanent pilot status. While it may take three to six months to process a completed application for remote pilot, a temporary certificate can be issued in less than 10 days.

The disadvantage in obtaining a remote pilot’s license is that a candidate must first take and pass the aeronautical knowledge test and then complete the FAA Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application to receive a Remote Pilot Certificate. Study materials are readily available and the test costs approximately $150 taken at a Knowledge Testing Center.

Public aircraft operations under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization

The second method of UAS authorization, Public Aircraft Operations under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization, provides for defined mission parameters and greater leeway in flight approval, while allowing for flight waivers. This is the short-term advantage in the PAO COA certification route for drone flights – a specific mission statement with defined waivers suitable for continued use by an emergency response agency.

While a certified pilot can fly either civil or public operational flights, PAO COA can only be classified as a flight by “public aircraft” and requires flight mission approval functioning as a public operation with a public aircraft. Remember, however, fire departments are classified as public agencies under federal code.

Public unmanned aircraft missions under PAO COA can be described in general terms such as search and rescue, wildland fire analysis, safety inspections and the like. This allows unlimited public flights over a specified period of time and subject only to renewal review.

Just as with Remote Pilot Certification, these exceptions to PAO are called waivers and such exemptions can be applied for as completely separate addendums in the form of a COA.

During special circumstances and in controlled airspace, depending on the needs of the operation or mission described in the PAO, a COA under PAO can allow an unmanned aircraft to be flown:

  • At night
  • Over people
  • From a moving vehicle
  • Outside the line of sight
  • Above 400 feet in altitude

Waivers can be applied for individually or in groupings.

In an effort to streamline the application process, the FAA has developed three general COA classifications:

  1. Blanket COA. This is a general waiver with minor exceptions that allow most agencies to meet 75 percent of their mission objectives.
  2. Jurisdictional COA. A jurisdictional waiver expands the access area beyond the limitations imposed by a blanket COA, specifically in the area of restricted airspace.
  3. Special government Interest (Emergency COA). An Emergency COA allows for a one-time operation based on imminent risk to life where a manned aircraft is deemed too hazardous.

Application process for PAO COA

The typical application process for a public aircraft operations certificate with appropriate waivers (PAO COA) begins with a technical and operational review of proposed actions, including operational description, performance envelope, avionics and equipment, communications and flight information data. Such an application can be approved within 60 days of receipt provided there are no errors or issues in the application. The criteria for submission are available from the unmanned aircraft section of the FAA website.

Service priority

Whether applying for an RPC or requesting a PAO COA, civil operational requests receive the highest priority as these are flights conducted by first responders and other associated federal, state and local agencies tasked with life safety and property conservation objectives.

In the appendix of governmental functions, participants are defined as those individuals participating in national defense, intelligence missions, firefighting, search and rescue, law enforcement and aeronautical research, as well as those working in biological or geological resource management.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s new online DroneZone Portal can expedite first responder applications through its Special Governmental Interest (SGI) process. Instructions are specified in 14 CFR Part 375.

Training for pilot certification is available on the FAA’s safety website. Applicants are encouraged to review the Airman Certification Standards (ACS) for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, the Remote Pilot Study Guide, and the online sample questions before taking the Knowledge Test.

This article, originally published November 12, 2018, has been updated.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advises businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing has won six IAFF Media Awards. Spell has an associate’s degree in fire science and a bachelor’s degree in communications. His articles are available by Podcast at, and his latest book is “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell can be reached at

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