Firefighting and drones: How they work together

Launching an Unmanned Aerial System program is fraught with opportunity and regulations, here's how to navigate both

By Bill DeMars

Within our industry there are many items that go by multiple names. For example, a cervical immobilization device it is sometimes called a c-collar, extrication collar or a Stifneck. Often, the product trade name becomes the name it is known by, such as a Stokes basket, which is actually a basket stretcher.

There is one relatively new item being used in our industry with a real name and a "street" name. The different names actually do conjure up different perceptions of the product.

Several firefighting agencies are using an Unmanned Aerial System to collect information, to add perspective and insights at fire scenes and to assist rescues. The other name used for these devices are "drones." OK, I said the "D" word.

Drone conjures images of George Orwell's "1984" book with big brother watching your every move, military devices of surveillance and destruction, and an invasion of privacy.

The subject UAS usage falls into two areas of discussion.

First, there are UASs used for commercial applications, such as public safety professionals using them in the course of protecting the public. In this instance the members of the public safety team are aware of the UAS being used, they are not surprised by its introduction into an emergency scene and they can control it in the event of the UAS inhibits others from completing their job — such as aircraft for emergency evacuations or fire suppression.

Second, there are UASs used by recreational hobbyist. This is the scenario you hear the most about in the news. Examples of this include civilian-operated drones at a fire scene being sprayed with water to make the drone go away.

Why use UASs
UAS are here to stay and the technology is evolving faster than the government regulations can keep up. The devices are getting smaller, easier to deploy and control, and equipped with better imaging and sensors.

The benefits of UASs to a fire agency are too numerous to mention, but suffice to say they enhance safety at a contaminated scene, enhance rescue and recovery and improved scene management through thermal imaging and resource management. A wonderful example is when an 82-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease had been lost for three days in a Wisconsin cornfield; he was found in 20 minutes when they used a drone.

Many fire departments are considering the introduction of UAS into their toolbox. This decision to adopt UAS comes with a long list of action items required to use a UAS in the public safety sector.

You need the Federal Aviation Administration Section 333 exemption. To obtain this, you must complete a lengthy application with documentation about your flight operations, aircraft, safety measures and maintenance procedures. This process can take up to 6 months, but has been taking much less time recently.

Once a Section 333 exemption is received, you will also be included in the blanket approval for commercial drone use under 200 feet for Section 333 holders. To comply with the blanket approval, you must comply with a few very stringent regulations.

Rules of engagement
These include making sure the aircraft weighs less than 55 pounds, is operated during daytime Visual Flight Rules conditions and is operated within a visual line of sight of the pilot. The rules allow flights anywhere in the country except restricted airspace and other areas, such as major cities where FAA prohibits UAS operations.

The regulations also require they remain set distances from airports or helicopters. Here are those distances in nautical miles.

  • 5 NM from an airport having an operational control tower.
  • 3 NM from an airport with a published instrument flight procedure, but not an operational tower.
  • 2 NM from an airport without a published instrument flight procedure or an operational tower.
  • 2 NM from a heliport with a published instrument flight procedure.

Outside of the federal regulations there are also state, county and city ordinances that may restrict the use of UASs within those areas. Obviously, it is important to understand and comply with these ordinances.

It cannot be emphasizes enough that along with a plan use the UAS, there needs to be a plan to educate the public on its uses. By heading off the misperceptions about these devices up front, the public will be more open to their use and implementation.

For these devices to be used to their fullest capabilities and within regulating guidelines, those using UASs will need to not only know how to operate the UAS but also plan for such flights. This may include the notifying an air traffic control tower in the area or another public safety agency working a scene.

Since there are so many UAS brands on the market, being sold by many different distributors you will need to evaluate both the UAS device and the distributor selling you the UAS.

UAS are one of the newest and most exciting technologies for the public safety sector. These devices can save lives and positively impact the performance of the fire service. In light of all these positives, UAS are also a technology laden with regulatory and public-perception hurdles, which will have to be understood and managed properly.

About the Author

Bill DeMars is an FAA certified Part 91 helicopter pilot, EMT-P (ret), respiratory therapist and the managing partner for an EMS consulting company marketPOINT, LLC. He has been involved in the public safety since 1980. 

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