From the Eye of the DRONE

CarolinaFireJournal - Justin Sellers
Justin Sellers
08/07/2015 -

You pull up on scene, smoke is billowing and firefighters are everywhere. You are a chief, you have no clue where your people are. You are supposed to establish IC (Incident Command), but you feel that you are already behind the power curve.


Most departments in the U.S. right now are actually not using UAVs legally. They just pull them out and throw them up, which is not proper protocol according to the FAA.

Confidently, you reach into your case and pull out your UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), power it into the sky, and immediately you see where your people are and what they are doing. Many departments across the U.S. are now able to relate to the above scenario due to the fact that UAV usage in emergency services is drastically increasing. Departments across the U.S. are acquiring, training and utilizing these pieces of equipment all on their own. However, many departments are puzzled as to what they can use them for, how to use it legally, and how to train with the assets.

UAV Applications

Hazmat: Don’t suit up someone and make them the guinea pig to determine exactly what the issue is and how to fix it, rather, fly a UAV to determine what the problem is, what the placard says, what kind of patch you’ll need, etc.

Missing Persons: With the fact that most UAV systems have the capability to produce autonomous search and rescue grid patterns and fly the routes themselves; these systems are a must have on the scene. These aircraft have the capability to liftoff, fly a mission, return to the launch point, and even land themselves without operator input. All you have to do is sit back and watch the screen, looking for the missing person.

Structure Fires: The opening paragraph describes the day to day struggles, but you can also equip these aircraft with thermal cameras and hover just outside windows looking for victims; allowing your department to better conduct primary and secondary searches.

Brush Fires: These scenes are often over large areas of land, require forestry and massive amounts of man power to successfully extinguish. Placing a UAV in the sky allows you to get a birds eye view without the expensive cost of a helicopter; therefore allowing you to position your manpower effectively.

Mass Casualty Scenes: People and hazards are everywhere! Walking through the scene determining priorities is time consuming and all the injured personnel on the ground are distracting you from your primary job. Place a UAV in the sky and view the scene subjectively, making the best decisions for your patients and personnel.

Are You Legal?

Most departments in the U.S. right now are actually not using UAVs legally. They just pull them out and throw them up, which is not proper protocol according to the FAA. This leads to an undue risk to other aircraft in the airspace surrounding the scene and opens the department up for a liability suit.

Those departments that wish to fly UAVs legally are required by the FAA to file a request for a Certificate of Authorization (COA), which can be done, online through the FAA. This process can be quite confusing the first time. A COA typically requires 60 days of processing time, but once approved lasts for two years. A COA is required for the area you will be flying in on each and every flight. As we all know, a scene is not always in the same area, so you can interface with the FAA in order establish an SOP that will allow you to activate a COA on an emergency basis, should the need arise.

Once a department has received their COA, the members chosen need to receive proper training on UAV’s. The last thing a department wants is for someone to get hurt operating these aircraft. Several companies across the U.S. provide full service training on these assets, please be sure to check them out.

UAV Training

Proper training for a department should include several days of training ranging from classroom, simulator, and actual flight activities. You need to understand exactly what the UAV is doing and why. You need to understand what happens when something goes wrong, and the best methods for achieving what your department wants to do with the platform.

Systems come in various shapes, sizes, and capabilities. Smaller UAVs can fly anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes. They can go from 500 meters to over 20 miles away. Most aircraft typically fly around 100 to 150 feet above the treetops, but have the capability to go much higher.

Most systems can be deployed and on station over your scene within five minutes. This is exponentially faster than helicopters can be on scene. Once the UAV is running low on battery, you can land, change battery, and be airborne again within just a few minutes time. This allows you to have continuous overhead support on your scene.

UAV Pricing

The pricing of UAVs range from several hundred dollars to thousands, depending upon what the UAV is capable of doing. Keep in mind, a search and rescue helicopter has an hourly price tag of over $1,000 typically. Most UAVs receive complete Return of Investment within approximately five to 30 hours of operation. The aircraft pictured in this article cost $10,000 and features a full color thermal camera, 1080P daytime imagery camera, can travel two miles, reach 10,000 feet and flies for 30 to 37 minutes. This UAV should fly for approximately 250 hours before requiring any serious maintenance and that maintenance will run approximately $500.

Higher end UAVs are still well within grant budgets and come jam-packed with features. Most platforms can include Thermal imaging, Infrared imaging, 1080P daytime imaging, and radio relay platforms, which can be used in remote areas where dispatch normally can’t be reached. These aircraft also have the capability to hold equipment, drop equipment — such as life jackets and lead lines — and map areas for pre-plans.

UAV Safety

Another aspect that departments worry about is the safety of these platforms. First and foremost, the most important safety feature that you can have is proper training. Beyond that, the next coolest safety feature is “Geo-Fence” technology. This feature will keep you from being able to accidently fly your aircraft outside of the area that you should be flying in. Aircraft also have the capability to have predetermined settings that the aircraft will perform in the event the controller loses signal with the aircraft. The computer system even has the capability to let you know when you are too close to an airport and shouldn’t fly.

Between the capabilities that UAVs feature, the added benefits on rescue scenes, and the safety features they boast; it is a no brainer that this technology is rapidly gaining traction in the emergency services industry.

PLEASE NOTE: Beyond emergency services, you may also find that UAVs are being used in many other applications such as: real estate photography, television commercial, agricultural applications and inspections for a multitude of industries. This is important to fire departments due to the fact that if one of these crash, you may have to respond to the scene. While most UAVs are small and are battery powered, some aren’t. Some UAVs carry aircraft fuel. Please be sure to ask the operator on scene what the UAV is powered by, should there be a fire. Also, it is important to note that most UAVs run off Lithium Ion or Lithium Polymer type batteries, which don’t react well to water. In the event you need to put one out, dirt is your best bet. While rare, this can occur.

Justin Sellers is the owner of Sellers Imaging, LLC out of North Augusta, South Carolina. He has been a DOD UAV flight instructor for the last six years and is qualified on over a dozen UAV platforms. He has over 1400 hours of flight time on UAV’s (325 of which are in combat scenarios.) All of Sellers’ aircraft are custom built and made in the USA. For more information call 803-335-8065 or visit
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