The Necessity of Drones in the Fire Service and Public Safety


CarolinaFireJournal - Chief Charles L. Werner (Ret.)
Chief Charles L. Werner (Ret.)
01/25/2021 -

In 2015, I wrote my first article in “Firehouse Magazine” about drones in the fire service. I recall identifying three major categories of potential use and perhaps four more possibilities. While I was right in my predictions of the seven use cases, I never imagined that five years later, use cases in public safety would increase exponentially.

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In the DRONERESPONDERS 2020 Spring Survey, over 17 public safety use cases were identified impacting almost every aspect of emergency response and across all public safety disciplines.Over the last several years, drones have proven to enhance safety for citizens/responders, improve operational effectiveness and provide real time situational awareness. Drones provide essential incident/event information that simply cannot be seen from the ground. Without a drone, it’s a gamble with safety. I ask, “Would you ever make a critical command decision with your eyes closed?” – NO!

Since 2017, the natural disasters (hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, mudslides, volcanic activity), civil unrest and COVID19, drones have been documented to have saved over 500 lives globally, logged tens of thousands of flights during disasters and assisted with many humanitarian missions. Drones make a difference in a big way and this trend will continue.

The ability to conduct aerial reconnaissance has previously been limited to larger departments due to cost and complexity of operating a manned aviation wing — helicopter and/or fixed wing. Today, drones change that dynamic and can easily and affordably provide that aerial view at a fraction of the cost. Drones do not replace helicopters but are an enhancement to the aviation wing as it can fly in areas and at times when manned aircraft cannot.

The Value of Drones:

  • Structure fires – overview of conditions, thermal imaging heat signatures that can identify fire extension, identify issues with structural integrity and can help direct more accurate water stream application and locate fire extension to other buildings.
  • Wildfires – overwatch, direction and speed of fire spread, locate hot spots and conduct ground fuel analysis to mitigate hazards.
  • Fire investigations – capture the incident scene in high resolution and create 3D models for review from different angles and review at a later time.
  • Hazmat – locate and monitor spill flows, identify contamination of waterways, remote sensing and identification of substances, thermal imaging can identify liquid/gas levels in containers, see plumes otherwise invisible to the naked eye, maintain overwatch during hazmat ops, drop needed tools nearby work area, communicate warnings when radios are inoperable.
  • Water rescues can be made by dropping flotation devices to swimmers in trouble or a person in swift water.
  • Lost persons – searches can be made over larger areas more quickly, thermal can locate people at night and dangerous and inaccessible areas can be searched.
  • Damage assessments from natural and man-made disasters which can be used for Presidential Disaster Declarations and to provide information to citizens to expedite insurance claims.
  • Disaster recovery – can monitor recovery progress, identify roads reopened, monitor receding water.
  • Traffic crash reconstruction – crash measurements can be captured in about a third of the time, free roadways more quickly and reduce secondary accidents making it safer for citizens and responders.
  • Law Enforcement Tactical Ops – overwatch of dangerous ops, interior room searches and suspicious packages checked more safely.
  • Training – incidents and training accidents can be captured by drone video and used to review later for training purposes.
  • Pre-Incident Planning – 3D models can be created from drone imagery which can show building features, hazards and more and can be accessed later during an incident.
  • Video streaming – live video streaming can be shared with the incident commander, the emergency manager or anyone that needs access to the information.

Some departments may think that FAA regulations and remote pilot qualifications may be too heavy a lift to take advantage of a drone program. There is one alternative, which is an actively tethered drone and one example exists that has been implemented by Pierce Fire Apparatus Manufacturing, which launched their Situational Awareness System with the Fotokite Actively Tethered Drone. This drone can be mounted in a compartment, on the cab of apparatus or in a mobile case. It is launched by one button operation, provides visual optic/thermal image views to the incident commander via a smart tablet, receives constant power through the tether — doesn’t require changing batteries — and lands with one button operation.

Most importantly, this drone operation DOES NOT REQUIRE remote pilot certification nor does it require a Certificate of Authorization (COA). The actively tethered drone is more limited in operation but can fly at an altitude of 150 feet and provide invaluable overwatch and without all of the other drone program and regulatory requirements.

Recently a new program, Drone as a First Responder (DFR) has emerged proving to be of great value. This program got its start with the Chula Vista California Police Department as part of the FAA’s Integration Pilot Program. The DFR program launches a drone at the time of incident dispatch. The drone flies beyond visual line of sight, arrives over the scene in an average of 115 seconds, usually arrives first and provids immediate video reconnaissance to the telecommunications operator as well as responders in the field.

Both police and fire units now have access to the video streaming which helps to determine if additional resources are needed and/or units can be returned to service more quickly. The program’s success has led to the formation of a DRONERESPONDERS DFR Working Group. If you or your department is interested in DFR or participating with the DFR Working Group, please send an email to Captain Don Redmond, [email protected].

For free drone resources, visit and join
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