7 Ways Fire Departments Use Drones in the Field

BY Zacc Dukowitz
25 April 2018

Across the U.S., and throughout the world, drones are being used more and more in firefighting operations.

And with good reason. Drones help firefighters collect vital information about ongoing fires, which helps them focus their efforts on where their help is most needed, keep them from harm’s way, and save lives.

Here are seven different ways fire departments are using drones in their operations right now.

1. Assess Risk and Danger

Drones support firefighting operations by providing an overhead view of the scene of the fire, which gives firefighters real time information about how a fire is unfolding.

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When dealing with wildfires, drones can help firefighters understand how the fire is spreading and where it might go next.

In dealing with a structure fire, drones can provide key information about exits and entry points, as well as revealing information about the nature of the fire that might not otherwise be possible to gather.

Also, when a fire is starting to die out, it can still contain smoldering hot spots that are invisible to the naked eye, and a thermal camera attached to a drone can help firefighters find these spots and make sure to avoid them.

2. Respond to Disasters

Firefighters don’t only fight fires.

UAVs can give firefighters a quick, safe way to capture information related to catastrophic events like floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes.

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This early information helps incident commanders and emergency managers understand the magnitude of community impact on building infrastructure, road conditions, and living conditions, and this information can help in determining what additional resources might be needed from FEMA, neighboring communities, or other organizations.

The data drones collect during disasters can also help find people trapped in their homes or vehicles, and divert rescue efforts to help them.

[Related read: What Is a Public Safety Drone? An In-Depth Guide—Includes 54 Use Cases]

3. Save Lives

Using thermal cameras, firefighters can find people who might be trapped on an upper level of a building, or in a wildfire, and focus their efforts on saving them.

How Firefighters Are Using Drones As First Responders To Save Lives | CNBC

Even without thermal, the ability to see into windows and gain real time information on the situation within a burning building, or within a wildfire, can provide crucial information to firefighters to help them save lives.

4. Make Emergency Deliveries

Firefighters are also using drones to make emergency deliveries in disaster situations, carrying items like Automated External Defibrillators (or AEDs), and whatever other equipment might be needed on the ground.

I think that the fire service is really at the forefront in package delivery. During [the] 2015 flood, we used drones to deliver body bags, AEDs and a host of other equipment that our drones were capable of carrying.

–  Gene Robinson, Experienced Search & Rescue UAV Pilot

5. Create Pre-Fire Plans

Situational awareness is everything when it comes to saving lives and preventing damage during a fire, and half the battle is knowing what you’re walking into.

That’s why firefighters have been using drones to capture images and create orthomosaic maps of key buildings and facilities, like schools, within the areas where they work.

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These maps help firefighters to know where the exits are, and can be used by the incident commander during a fire to provide a comparison between normal conditions and fire conditions for different parts of a building.

6. Conduct Investigations

Using a drone to capture aerial footage while a fire is burning can provide a twofold value—one, the situational awareness of what is currently happening on the scene; and two, the collection of first-hand information about how the fire burned while it was active.

This information, collected in photos and videos, can be archived and used for investigations into how the fire may have taken place.

Firefighters are also using drones after a fire has burned out to survey the scene and collect images that can be turned into orthomosaic maps. These maps serve as a record of the post-fire scene, so that even if the scene changes over time there is still a complete data set that can be used to investigate what might have caused the fire, and how it burned while it was active.

7. Create Training Materials

The aerial video footage and images captured while a fire is burning can be crucial in after-action assessments, in which firefighters critique their own efforts so that they can improve their approach and identify future training needs.

These materials can also be used to train new firefighters, providing real life examples of how a fire might unfold, and where decisions on the ground were made well or could have been made better.

Want to learn how the Los Angeles Fire Department built their drone program? Read about their step-by-step process here.

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