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AT&T's FirstNet poised to facilitate advanced firefighting technology

A reliable broadband connection will help drones stream live video to improve situational awareness and resource deployment, and measure response in the fire service


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.

By Kevin Nida, FireRescue1 Contributor

If only incident managers could see the incident from above, see in the dark, see through the smoke and relay vital information to firefighters on the ground. If only there were only a way for a search and rescue team to scan acres of land in an instant or know more about conditions without putting personnel and equipment at risk. If only there was a way to locate individuals who are struggling in the open ocean or the rapids of a river, or to assess flood damage. 

We are beginning to see many of the things fire personnel once only imagined, become trusted tools. (Photo/Pixabay)
We are beginning to see many of the things fire personnel once only imagined, become trusted tools. (Photo/Pixabay)

A few years ago, this was a wish list. Today, it is a reality and a list of tasks that can be readily accomplished with the help of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) or drone and experienced operators.  

With the ability to quickly reach and see places that humans normally would not, fire departments are steadily increasing their use and reliance on drones.  Drones can improve situational awareness and resource deployment, and they allow us to measure our response during structure and wildland fires, search and rescue operations, and numerous types of disasters.

The NYFD is now sending up a drone for every two-alarm fire or greater. Armed with both an infrared and high-definition camera, the drones transmit live images of fire operations to the chief, which can then be shared with other senior decision makers.

The LAFD deployed two drones during the December 2017 Skirball Incident to assess damage and gather more information on fire hot spots. According to LAFD firefighter and UAS Program Instructor Derrick Ward, the department’s program is staffed with two pilots and is planning on finalizing a six-week, 48-hour training program in the near future to expand the program for daily responses to a multitude of incidents.

The process to establish the LAFD’s UAS began in June 2017 with initial concept approval by the LAFD Fire Commission. The process also involved a transparent public comment period and feedback and review from the ACLU, approval by the Los Angeles City Council Public Safety Committee and full City Council, and an application being transmitted and approved by the FAA.

With departments that respond to more than 1,000 calls for service per day, drones will get a real workout, providing an accelerated learning experience for the operators.  That experience can be shared with the rest of us to refine, adapt and improve our responses. 

The same infrared technology that allows fire personnel to spot hot zones in a fire can also be used to spot humans in search and rescue operations conducted in the dark or in an area that is forested or thick with debris.  That information, when transmitted over a public safety broadband network and overlaid on various GIS platforms, is a very powerful tool.

The Mesa, Arizona Fire and Medical Department has been actively using drones for three years to scan large areas in desert search and rescue operations and used them to assess flood damage in Mayer, Az., in July of 2017.

Many agencies are also assessing the ability of drones to deliver items to individuals in distress – water, food, cell phones – to buy rescue personnel additional time. In January of this year, lifeguards who were using a drone to monitor sharks near a beach on the northern coast of New South Wales in Australia spotted two swimmers struggling in rough seas. They were able to hook a raft onto the drone and deliver it to the swimmers in less than 90 seconds. Authorities say it could have taken seven minutes or more for lifeguards to swim out and make the save.

Drones are proving their worth. But at the core of a drone’s utility is a trained and quick-thinking operator and reliable public safety broadband service.  If broadband fails or is unavailable, then the UAS fails in its mission to provide better situational awareness to save lives and property. FirstNet is being built to solve that problem and help public safety make the most effective use of new and emerging tools to improve situational awareness, like drones.

A stronger connection allows video streaming from drones

The First Responder Network Authority was established by Congress in 2012 after public safety identified the need for a dedicated, nationwide wireless network for first responders, and the 9/11 Commission recommended its creation.

After a competitive procurement process, AT&T was named as our commercial partner in March 2017. Following the launch of this public-private partnership, the First Responder Network Authority and AT&T issued customized plans to each U.S. state and territory for governors to make the choice to deploy their own radio access network or accept the FirstNet state plan. By early 2018, every governor had chosen to go with the FirstNet state plan.  

FirstNet services are available now to public safety subscribers with plans for additional capacity, tower sites and functionality in the near term.

Right now, subscribers to FirstNet have priority and the ability to preempt all other network traffic. This means fire personnel will have access to a network that connects to life-saving data when they need it most, and services that require high speeds and greater bandwidth, like video streaming capabilities, will be available to a first responder even when the commercial networks are congested – which can happen during major emergencies.

The FirstNet network’s footprint and coverage will be expanded, including in rural areas, so that responders across the nation can make mission critical use of lifesaving technologies, like UAS. Over the next five years, AT&T will be deploying FirstNet’s dedicated band of spectrum and is investing heavily in expanding the network.

Fostering innovation driven by public safety

Moving forward, the First Responder Network Authority will continue to work hand-in-hand with the fire service to learn how data and advanced technologies, like UAS, can help address the unique challenges the fire service faces.

We will use the feedback we receive to drive innovation and ensure FirstNet continues to evolve to meet public safety’s needs. With the support of our Innovation and Test Lab in Boulder, Colorado, FirstNet will help to accelerate the transition of commercial-focused technology for the benefit of public safety users.

Our partners at National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) Division are also working to innovate for first responders. PSCR recently closed a prize challenge designed to encourage research and technology entities and even hobbyists to discover and design drones that can stay in the air longer, so they can better support fire response, search and rescue operations. One of the barriers for UAS in public safety applications is that the more the drone has to carry in the way of cameras and equipment, the less time it can stay in the air.

The design challenge is looking for innovative ways to increase both drone payload and flight time. The designs and innovations developed by the challenge winners will be on display at the 2018 PSCR Stakeholder conference this June in San Diego.

Charlottesville, Va., Fire Chief Emeritus Charles Werner serves as chair of the International Public Safety Association’s UAS committee. Having studied drones for several years, he sees the potential. “Now I can take that video from the drone and connect it to broadband and stream live video to all those people that are decision makers – whether they are at the incident command or at the emergency operations center – simultaneously,” Werner said. “Everything is going to change when this door opens to FirstNet, and we really have the network in place. We can only imagine the things that will come of it.”

We are beginning to see many of the things fire personnel once only imagined, become trusted tools.

About the author
Kevin Nida is the First Responder Network Authority region lead for California and has served in fire, EMS, law enforcement, 911 and the private technology sector for 40 years. He was involved in radio interoperability, an early builder BTOP project and many other public safety based projects in the Los Angeles area. He retired as a fire battalion chief for the Los Angeles Fire Department. For more information about the First Responder Network Authority, visit www.firstnet.gov.

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