Although the concept of using a drone as a first responder (DFR) originated within law enforcement and has seen significant success there, the application of drones as first responders has considerable potential within fire rescue. In 2019, the Chula Vista Police Department (CFPD) became one of the first public safety agencies to deploy the drone as a first responder concept.
Instead of the drone being a reactive tool, deployed on-scene by responding units, the drone is integrated into the agency’s dispatch system and is launched from the roof of the police headquarters.
Commands are sent to the drone from the watch commander who is positioned inside. A visual observer is stationed on the roof and keeps eyes on the drone and airspace. If the visual observer detects a potential conflict with other aircraft, they can immediately take control of the drone and maneuver it to a safe location. A vital component to this concept of operations is the ability to fly the drone beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) of the pilot-in-command (PIC) and visual observer. As part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), Chula Vista Police Department was able to obtain the proper authorizations to operate drones beyond the visual line of sight of the operator.
While we’ve seen a handful of law enforcement agencies across the country attempt to replicate the success of CVPD’s BVLOS operations, we have yet to see fire rescue agencies try this on. But the DFR applications within the fire rescue community could bring extraordinary benefit to the communities that they serve. To illustrate what a DFR program for a fire department might mean, let’s first take a look at the Chula Vista DFR model and some of the data that has been collected.
When the CVPD receives a call through dispatch, the watch commander can immediately initiate a drone response directly to the scene. Before officers even arrive on scene, the drone can be overhead of the incident providing intelligence to responding officers on the way. This intel has provided valuable data in over 4,000 calls that CVPD has responded to. In many cases, officers are able to identify threats and discuss tactics before they’re even on-scene. In nearly 25 percent of calls using DFR, the call was able to be cleared before an officer even showed up on scene. This alone allows for better allocation of resources and results in less wasted time during an officer’s shift. Now picture having this ability as a responding fire rescue unit. For an active structure fire, responding firefighters would in many cases have the ability to get a full 360-degree view of the fireground before even arriving. Communication between the responding engines and the drone controller could allow for firefighters to request varying vantage points or to zoom in on a specific location, or even the ability to use a thermal image sensor. In instances where the responding firefighters have been given incorrect location information, the drone could help identify incorrect information, saving valuable seconds and minutes.
How Could a Fire Department Set Up a DFR Program?
There are a few key components to setting up a DFR program successfully. While there is much information available publicly about how to set up a drone program on a whole, this discussion will focus solely on setting up DFR operations for a fire department. For an agency to get to DFR operations, it is recommended that they have some sort of drone infrastructure already in place. It is recommended to use a crawl-walk-run approach to setting up drone programs within public safety and DFR is closer to the run side.
When setting up any drone program, especially DFR, community buy-in is extremely important. Drones often invoke negative sentiment, especially from communities that may not understand their benefit. It’s extremely important for agencies to be transparent and inform their communities of what they will and will not be doing with the drones. Specifically, with DFR, community members may see drones flying above them and no operator nearby which means educating the public becomes paramount as to the benefit of the drone operations. Secondly, mapping out your concept of operations (CONOPS) is critical. The CONOPS will define your missions, protocols, operating procedures, and contingencies and serves as the overarching defining document of your DFR operations. Additionally, the type of unmanned aircraft used is also very important. Making sure you have the right tool for the mission is critical and there are a lot of options available. If for instance, you have a coverage area for your DFR operations of three miles and you are using a drone with 15 minutes of battery life, it’s entirely possible that you may end up with very little time on scene due to the time taken to travel to the scene and then return. Add in unfavorable environmental conditions such as strong winds and that time is reduced even further. On the other hand, some larger unmanned aircraft can offer 30 plus minutes of flight time and often have the ability to carry multiple sensors including zoom and thermal.
Another key component of setting up a DFR program involves regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration. While some law enforcement agencies currently operate DFR purely within line of sight, the ultimate goal of most DFR programs would be having the ability to fly beyond visual line of sight. To obtain this authorization from the FAA, an agency is required to make a safety case and operational risk assessment and submit to the FAA. After a review process, the FAA can grant an agency BVLOS authority if they feel the agency has provided enough safety mitigation. Unfortunately, the FAA does not currently provide templates for this process but there are public safety agencies who are willing to share this information as well as private companies that specialize in this type of work.
Ultimately, the case for DFR operations inside of a fire rescue agency is compelling. We’ve already seen meaningful data from a handful of law enforcement agencies operating DFR programs and the applications for a fire rescue agency are just as strong. Already having proven the significant impact that drones are having within the fire service, we are hopeful that we will see fire rescue take on the development of DFR programs in the near future.