It’s like Christmas in July! Your department just bought a drone — or you did, hoping to convince your command staff that it’s time to adopt this new technology. But what do you do with it?
Sure, you could just start flying it, bringing it to active fire scenes, and show everybody just how cool your new toy is. But then there was that time you tried to fly it in the apparatus bay, lost control, and crashed into the side of your shiny new quint.
Having helped nearly 500 agencies across the country start UAS (unmanned aircraft system) programs, I have seen some version of this story play out too many times, and unfortunately; in a few of those cases, it put an end to what could have been a successful program.
So, what’s the right answer? There are a few of them, actually, so let’s cover the options here.
The simplest place to start is by talking about your legal options for getting off the ground.
As of today, you have three options to pursue — as a hobbyist, as a Part 107 certified commercial operator, or under a department-level Certificate of Authorization (COA).
Hobbyists, sorry, but there’s not really a place for you in public safety operations. Once you use the drone for official purposes, to make money, or in furtherance of a business of any kind, you can’t use that category of rules.
That said, if you want to start practicing at home on your own time, you can legally operate as a hobbyist, as long as you stay five miles from an airport, stay under 400 feet, during the day and keep the drone in your line of sight.
Once you set foot in a fire station on or a scene with it, your days as a hobbyist are over (at least while you’re still on duty).
Your two other options are Part 107 or a COA.
At a basic level, the key difference between the two is that Part 107 is an individual level certification and the COA is a department level one.
Part 107 is easier and faster to get but comes with some restrictions. The COA takes longer and puts more of the responsibility or liability onto your department, but it has a broader set of operating rules.
Which is right for you? Well, it depends on where you are, how many operators you plan to have, and what you plan to do with it.
If you’re just one operator in a small rural department, or a few people wanting to operate near a small to medium sized airport, Part 107 may be enough.
If you’re looking to get more than a few people trained, or want to operate near a major airport, a COA — or a combination of COAs and Part 107 — may end up being the better choice.
The intricacies of how you choose would take up this entire magazine, but there are tons of free resources on our site — skyfireconsulting.com — that can help you decide the best course of action.
Once you’re legal, the next hurdle is training. Just like you wouldn’t take a new fire truck on the road or deploy a new thermal imager without first learning how to use it safely, you shouldn’t put a drone in the sky without understanding the basics.
Training comes in many shapes and sizes, and no one program is right for everyone.
Part 107 certification involves taking a 60-question test, and that’s a good place to start your training. There are several very good online courses, and plenty of in-person or hybrid courses available.
But studying for the test is only the beginning. The test doesn’t prepare you for actually flying a drone, or how to apply it to your public safety mission.
For this task, I’d recommend reaching out to someone who specializes in public safety drone training — whether that be a local department or organization that has years of experience, a consulting/training company like ours, or the various courses offered at industry conferences and events.
Putting a drone in the sky is akin to taking that remote-control car you got as a kid and putting it on the highway alongside real cars. You’re doing the same thing with what is essentially a remote-controlled helicopter, putting it alongside real helicopters and airplanes, and you need to understand proper procedures, communications, risk analysis and deconfliction before you can safely do that.
The last critical piece to plan for your department’s drone program is future funding. Learning the basics is great, but there will inevitably come a time where you want to use a thermal camera, map an incident scene, do a search and rescue or fly a life jacket to a struggling swimmer; and for these things, you’re going to want specialized training.
You’re also going to need replacement batteries at some point, a new case, to get some more operators trained, or maybe even an upgraded drone; so, it’s important to understand that buying a drone for your department is just the first expense you’re going to incur, not the only one.
I say all of this not to scare you into not venturing into the public safety drone world, but to help educate you and your command staff that starting a drone program is an ongoing process, not a single event in time.
Without a doubt, drones are life-saving tools in the fire service, and that has been proven time and time again; but like that shiny new quint, it is not something to be undertaken lightly and without a plan.