Completing the 540: Drones provide elevated insights into fireground operations

Identifying drone needs, building training program, and deploying on the incident scene


Battalion Chief Vince Bettinazzi and Captain Christian Sliker will be presenting information on drone programs and operations at Fire-Rescue International in Charlotte, N.C., on Friday, July 30, 2021. Learn more and register today.

By Vince Bettinazzi and Christian Sliker

Establishing command, completing a 360 and assigning crews. This is considered baseline for almost every fireground operation in the country.

But what if there’s more? What if you could provide another view that would show more than just walls and roof lines? What if this view could provide an aerial snapshot of fire, smoke and hazardous conditions that would aid incident commanders (ICs) in making safer fireground tactical decisions?

A drone films the exterior of a house fire, watching crews operating on roof.
A drone films the exterior of a house fire, watching crews operating on roof. (Photo/MBFD)

Drones allow us to complete a 540-degree perspective of the scene. This allows the IC to make more informed decisions, develop a solid incident action plan, and start those winning tactics. Add some nifty drone accessories like a FLIR camera, and we have a real-time, ongoing incident assessment.

Let’s review the implementation of drones in the fire service and how they can help take your organizations scene safety to the next level.

The right stuff: Identify your needs

Once your organization had decided to pursue a drone program, the inevitable first question is, “Where should we start?”

The first step is figuring out which drone will fit your specific operational needs. Just like buying a car, there are a ton of options. Maybe not heated seats or fuzzy steering wheel covers, but there are plenty of options to help tailor the aircraft to fit your use specifications.

When the City of Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Fire Department (MBFD) adopted our drone program, we identified three main uses for our aircrafts:

  1. Fireground operations;
  2. Large-area land searches; and
  3. Aquatic rescues.

With these uses in mind, we outfitted our drones with a FLIR thermal imager, spotlights and communication speakers for voice commands.

In 2020, MBFD conducted 75 missions with over 30 hours of flight time. During these flights, the drone aided in 11 structure fires and 15 ocean rescue emergencies, capturing footage ranging from near roof collapses to swimmers in distress. So, before you purchase your unmanned aircraft, ensure it will fit all the needs of your organization.

A drone uses a thermal imager at a house fire. 
A drone uses a thermal imager at a house fire.  (Photo/MBFD)

Earning your wings: Set guidelines and training

After purchasing its first unmanned aircraft, your organization will have to check many boxes before your drone is ready to fly its first mission.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules apply to small unmanned aircrafts, and without proper training and certifications, your organization can be in hot water, quickly. There are many factors that can ground your aircraft including, airport proximity, nearby aircraft and, most importantly, improperly trained pilots.

It’s important to establish a set of guidelines and training for all pilots participating in your drone program. The MBFD designed and implemented a five-day course that combined in-class and hands-on instruction. Through this in-depth course, the MBFD has over 20 FAA Part 107-certified pilots that can fly both day and night operations. The MBFD has also obtained a Certificate of Authorization (COA) that allows our pilots to fly emergency missions near the Myrtle Beach International Airport, which is normally a no-fly zone.

Bottom line: To ensure legal and safe flight operations, your organization must develop a set of guidelines that adhere to the FAA rules and regulations for unmanned aircrafts.

Let’s now shift to how ICs can integrate this technology and deploy drones on the incident scenes. It’s starts with some logistical basics.

Drone responsibilities: Housing, piloting and maintaining the drone

What apparatus or team will be responsible for getting the drone to the scene? Our department has changed the drone-deployment models a few times, but we now have the drones on specific apparatus based upon the last couple years of response data.

It’s best to assign the drone to an apparatus that will be included on your major incidents or that can be easily added if it isn’t on the initial dispatch. Remember, emergencies happen 24 hours a day, so if you’re spending the money and committing to the training of pilots, avoid the Monday through Friday, 9-to-5 staff vehicles.

The drone and its accessories typically need enough space for two small Pelican cases and a folding launch pad.

Also, identify who will be responsible for care and maintenance. The drone’s batteries need to be charged around every 10 days. Albeit a small matter, the care and maintenance factor could influence your drone placement in your department.

A drone hovers over an ocean rescue.
A drone hovers over an ocean rescue. (Photo/MBFD)

When it comes to incident response, the IC may be restricted based upon the number of members of your department who are trained pilots. ICs should not run a significant, multi-company response while flying the drone. Talk about adding to task saturation! If you are on an organization that has the ability to send several chief officers to the scene, then this could be a potential deployment option for your second or third due chief.

Some shifts have several pilots who are firefighters. The downfall: They ride fire trucks. On a structure fire, the IC will need these personnel to stretch hoselines, search buildings and ventilate. On smaller departments, your precious resource of people will be more critical for these tasks. Realistically, these are incidents where you may not be able to pull your pilots away from their apparatus assignment right away. However, if you have a very large fire, several buildings involved or an incident extending several hours, you may be able to pull one of your firefighters from the company for the benefit of gaining an aerial perspective in order to adjust your incident objectives, strategy and tactics. On other incident scenes, like ocean/swiftwater, searches, hazmat, technical rescues, etc., you may be able to deploy your firefighter-pilots right away from the responding apparatus.

Please remember, the selected drone pilot should only focus on operating the drone. He or she should not have another role or responsibility while the drone is in flight (i.e., serving as safety officer). Additionally, some drone flights may require the assistance of a spotter in order to prevent damage to the drone.

It is up to your organizational leaders to implement a plan for drones in your response plans.

A critical word of advice: Don’t depend on the technology or get so fixated on what you are seeing with the drone that you lose your situational awareness of the scene. Building construction will play a significant role in heat/thermal readings and smoke travel. Trust you people who are inside the building. Use their reports of conditions, in conjunction with the drone’s camera, to lead you in making solid command decisions.

Drone applications: Use them regularly

Routinely train with your drone pilots. The more practice they get, they better they will be. Include drone operations during your company drills or live burns. These are great opportunities for your organization to get familiar with the drones.

The technology can be used proactively and post-incident as well. You can deploy drones before or after expected events in order to gain an aerial snapshot of the affected area. An example of this is before and after tropical storm impacts in our area. The drone can quickly survey large areas and report back potential issues or damage assessments back to important decision makers staffing the emergency operations center.

Highway to the danger zone: Take precautions

What if, once you are legally flying the drone, you discover that the world is conspiring against the drone? Trees want to collide with it, powerlines appear wherever you fly and, worst of all, birds think it’s a snack.

Flying can be extremely stressful during an operation, so it’s important to keep your head on a swivel. At MBFD, when available we utilize a visual observer to keep another set of eyes on the drone, ensuring the safest possible flight. Today’s drones do provide collision avoidance technology, but things can fail, and no one wants to explain to the chief why a $5,000 aircraft is lodged in a tree.

A drone shines a spotlight on a top floor of a high-rise fire.
A drone shines a spotlight on a top floor of a high-rise fire. (Photo/MBFD)

Of course, even with taking every safety precaution possible, issues can and will still happen. Whether you destroy a prop, damage a battery or experience a lost link with the controller while in flight, pilots must always be prepared.

To keep your aircraft in good working order, preventative maintenance and pre-flight checks should be conducted routinely. Further, this should be documented and readily available with the respective drone, just in case the FAA pays you a visit.  

Landing the point

Today’s technology continues to help the fire service develop, ultimately keeping our communities and first responders safe during emergencies. Drones not only give an IC an aerial overview of the scene, but also an elevated insight into any safety issues that are not readily visible from ground level.

As we move into the future, we must continue to embrace new technology and promote additional tools that can have large operational impacts on our firefighting abilities. Remember, when it comes to new technologies in the fire service, the sky really is the limit.


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