Drones Enhance Firefighter and Responder Safety

Drones are dramatically impacting the fire service and public safety. The uses have expanded into so many operations and the lists continue to grow. What is most important about drones in the fire service and for responders in general, is that drones enhance SAFETY for the responders!


A drone flying overhead is able to monitor and see things that cannot be seen from the ground.

As the fire service responses encompass all hazards, drones improve situational awareness for structure fires, wildland fires, hazmat-CBRNE incidents, technical rescues, floods, tornados, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, mass casualty incidents, transportation incidents and large mass gathering events.

At structure fires, the thermal image view from a drone can identify location of firefighters operating on the fireground and/or monitor firefighters operating on the roof of the structure. The thermal image view can see hazards through smoke that would have otherwise been impossible to be seen. A thermal imager also can identify specific heat signatures that will indicate fire spread in the building and point out potential dangers of structural integrity which provides invaluable information that could keep a firefighter safe from fire conditions that would have been previously unknown. A drone flying overhead is able to monitor and see things that cannot be seen from the ground. There have been a number of examples how a drone flying overhead has seen fire that has spread to an exposure building. While thermal image views are important, the visual optics provide an overwatch that can capture progression of the incident and can be used to enhance after action reports and in training.

There have been numerous reports that drones have had a remarkable impact on wildfire operations. Visual optics have identified that a predicted direction of spread was incorrect which allowed incident commanders to redirect resources accordingly. This course correction directly impacts the safety of firefighters. Drone thermal image view allows commanders to see through smoke for more accurate situational awareness. The thermal imaging also helps to locate hot spots for effective overhaul operations.

During a hazardous materials response, a drone equipped with hazmat monitor can be used to detect and identify the hazardous substance, assess and mitigate the problem more quickly. In some situations, it has been reported that drone use has reduced the prep and entry time by an hour. The use of drone thermal image technology also can see the volume of hazmat liquid in a container, identify the areas affected from a spill, and even see a dangerous plume from a pressurized vessel that might otherwise be invisible to the naked eye. This plume may be dangerous to responders or moving into a community. Having this knowledge enables firefighters to take appropriate action, reposition and evacuate people as necessary. Drones are also used for incidents involving radioactive materials that allow for safe remote monitoring of radiation levels and eliminating immediate need for direct responder exposure. In Hawaii, drones were used to monitor the presence of toxic sulfur dioxide (SO2) from volcanic activity, drones flew through and detected the presence of SO2 and evacuated those in harm’s way. Without this tool, many people may have been injured or killed, including responders.

Now drones provide a bird’s eye view during a cliff rescue which allows the monitoring of a very tenuous situation and to observe the progress of the rescue. If the rescuer needs assistance, the situation can be handled more quickly to assist the rescuer.

Floods from severe storms and hurricanes create extremely dangerous swift water rescue situations. Drones can provide quick information to locate persons in need and drop a flotation device. In many cases, this prevents a rescuer from having to put themselves in danger. Drones also help to provide information with access to those in need as well as status of roads.

Earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados create unstable collapse situations. Drones can fly above to assess the overall situation, locate people in immediate danger, create 3D models and can also fly into void spaces that would be too dangerous for responders. A thermal flyover view may locate a person from above as well as possible release of hazardous gas by seeing a plume that is invisible to the naked eye.

Rough terrains pose unique and dangerous situations for rescuers searching for lost persons. Often, these dangerous areas can be evaluated by drone (visual optic or thermal) eliminating the need for a rescuer to traverse these areas. It is also done much faster. At night and in extremely cold weather, a thermal view can locate a lost person and direct rescuers to the person in need as well as identify hazards like bodies of water that would be unknown to the rescuers.

Tethered drones now offer another application as Piece Fire Apparatus Manufacturing is offering a built-in feature into fire apparatus called their “Situational Awareness” package. The drone is easily launched from a compartment slide out and begins immediate monitoring from above with a switchable visual optic/thermal image view and streaming this information real time to the situational awareness to the incident commander. As the drone is attached and powered by tether, it does not require changing of batteries. The significance of tethered drone operations is that it does not require a certified remote pilot that is required by free flight drones. This can be custom designed into new apparatus or retrofitted into existing apparatus.

Often fire service drone teams will fly for their law enforcement colleagues. These situations may involve SWAT operations, active shooter, overwatch of tactical entry prior to and during operation. This information can be directly streamed to a SWAT commander, which provides the highest level of situational awareness by identifying the location of a shooter in relation to officers’ movement. Thermal image heightens operational awareness significantly during night operations by more quickly locating suspicious people that would otherwise be unseen to law enforcement officers.

Critical infrastructure such as a dam can be monitored safely, quickly and inexpensively as to a state of deterioration and provide advance notifications to citizens who may require evacuation thereby enhancing safety of responders and community.

The situational view from above demonstratively enhances the safety of responders and citizens. This view informs responders of hazards that they would otherwise be unaware without the drone. This results in better decisions, quicker mitigation, operational efficiency and enhances responder safety. Drones make a big difference to responder safety and it’s time to consider a drone program, partner with an existing program or consider a drone service contract.

To learn more about public safety UAS operations, safety and guidelines, consider joining DRONERESPONDERS (DRONERESPONDERS.ORG) and get free access to the largest online resource center with over 300 documents (SOPs, training programs, policy manuals, task books and more).

Charles Werner is is a retired Charlottesville fire chief and 45 year public safety veteran. After retirement, he worked with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management for two years as senior advisor/acting deputy state coordinator. Werner served in numerous leadership roles at the local, state, national levels on public safety communications, GIS, broadband, information sharing, thermal imaging, enhanced location technology, FirstNet and drones. He serves as Director-DRONERESPONDERS Public Safety Alliance, Chair-National Council on Public Safety UAS and was appointed by Governor Northam to serve on the Secure & Resilient Commonwealth Panel.

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