Driving the Fire UAV

Everybody wants to drive the fire SUV. Just ask Hannibal Burress.

But what about the fire UAV? Who can legally be driving (Flying) the fire unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)? Does everyone really need one?

The public sector use of UAV’s for emergency services within the United States has been regulated under the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act (FMRA) of 2012. Within the FMRA it regulates who can fly a UAV and for what purpose. The FMRA categorizes UAV’s into three separate categories: Hobbyist, Commercial and Public Operations. Hobbyist operators do not have to have any qualifications and can fly their UAVs within the guidelines set forth within the FMRA. Commercial use of UAVs has been strictly prohibited until recently with several companies receiving exemption for testing and development. Public Operations require the municipality to file for a Certificate of Waiver Authorization (COA), which, if granted, will allow an entity to fly a particular UAV in a designated airspace. Each separate municipality would need to file for a separate COA for their UAV operations. New CFR Part 107 Regulations may make the process a bit easier but is there really the need for every fire department to have their own UAV program? How about looking regionally? Could your region greatly benefit from a shared service UAV asset?

UAV applications are ever increasing in the emergency service but still not everyday occurrences. Unmanned Aerial vehicles have been utilized to perform a multitude of operations. In 2014, a Connecticut fire department utilized a UAV equipped with video cameras during a fire near a dynamite cache. The dynamite was being stored for use during demolition. The UAV provided the needed situational awareness to the incident commander to permit safe firefighting activities and prevent the fire from reaching the dynamite.

An Arizona fire department utilized an Infrared (IR) camera equipped UAV during a fire in a large historic building in 2011. The IR camera identified two hot spots that they had no idea existed and provided the incident commander with valuable information to deploy firefighters to extinguish the fire.

A Massachusetts fire chief utilized a UAV equipped with a digital camera to assess the damage to homes along the beach. The assessment using the UAV took one hour where a traditional land based assessment would have taken days. The UAV assessment provided the Chief with faster situational information in order to perform a rapid needs assessment of his community.

UAVs have also aided in the rescue of lost individuals. In Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, the police launched a UAV equipped with camera and IR sensors after a motor vehicle accident in an attempt to locate the driver who had wandered off in freezing temperatures. The driver was injured, called 911 on his cell and stated he did not know where he was. Utilizing the cellphone location information the UAV quickly identified three heat signatures in the infrared sensor, one of which was the injured driver who was rescued within minutes. The driver was two miles from the accident scene.

In July of 2014, an elderly man went missing in Virginia. The man was missing for three days and police, search dogs and volunteers searched the heavily wooded areas around the man’s home. Using a camera equipped UAV with first person view located the man within 20 minutes of takeoff.

UAV operator (second from right)

The value of a shared UAV asset would disperse the cost of operation throughout the region and avoid the duplication of resources that plagues the modern fire service. Multiple fire engines and ladder trucks spaced just miles apart defy logical economy and just because of an arbitrary governmental boundary. Creating a regional UAV asset will limit the number of operators and ensure they receive the necessary experience by keeping the operator pool manageable.