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Public safety professionals need dronesPublic safety professionals need drones

Firefighters, police, emergency medical services, search and rescue crews, and lifeguards respond to a wide range of emergencies every day, and all too often they are hampered by a lack of critical information. Drones can help fill that gap.

Firefighters in Menlo Park, California, have cross-trained as drone pilots. Jim Moore photo.

From an incident commander or emergency manager’s perspective, the need for a full understanding of the situation including hazards and the magnitude of the incident, and an understanding of the resources required, are critical to the successful and safe mitigation of an incident. A public safety drone can dramatically enhance the situational awareness for incident commanders, emergency managers, and elected officials. The biggest danger for all involved is often not knowing what you don’t know.

Over the past two years, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have proven to be invaluable and a necessary tool for the public safety mission. There are now thousands of examples of how drones used by public safety responders have saved lives, enhanced situational awareness, and prevented responders and citizens from unnecessarily being in harm's way. UAS have greatly improved the knowledge of how bad is bad and what areas and citizens are in need.

UAS operations during Hurricane Harvey also demonstrated the ability to fly safely and effectively in close proximity to manned aircraft (helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft). UAS also have been credited with finding lost children, hikers, and dementia patients. In search and rescue, large fields have been searched more quickly by UAS, and areas inaccessible by foot become visible. In structural firefighting, UAS have helped to provide an overwatch, identify heat signatures with possible structural integrity issues, and identify fires that spread from one roof to another.

Crews fighting wildfires also utilize drones for determining direction of fire travel, scope of the fire, and location of remote spot fires, as well as helping locate people and structures in danger. During a train derailment, hazardous materials release, or similar incident, firefighters are using drones to identify the location of release, identify hazardous materials from a distance, evaluate adjacent hazards, determine the number of rail cars that may be compromised, and better understand the landscape around the incident.

UAS have had a major impact on responses to major flooding, offering an aerial perspective of the areas impacted. They help rescue crews locate people in danger, and determine which roads are passable.

Drones are now being used to drop ropes and personal flotation devices to people in water rescue situations to effect a more rapid and safer rescue. Along the coast, UAS are also used to detect sharks and warn swimmers and surfers of the danger.

The recent volcanic eruptions in Hawaii provide another case study in how drones can dramatically enhance situational awareness by mapping the impacted area, spotting new fissures, and deploying remote sensors to measure toxic gases including sulfur dioxide. All of this helped inform evacuation decisions.

Drones have become critical “eyes in the sky” following almost any major disaster, from hurricanes to earthquakes and tornadoes, allowing responders to fully grasp the extent of damage and to more quickly identify the resources needed for a more rapid recovery.

In law enforcement, UAS used prior to entry into a potentially hostile environment such as during a drug raid allow SWAT operators to identify potentially deadly situations before officers move in. 

Public safety colleagues from around the world unanimously report that UAS have had a profound and positive impact on the safety and effectiveness of their operations. Many wonder how they ever operated without drones. Some have gone as far as to say that those departments that do not have a UAS are negligent. Almost every public safety UAS program is reporting great successes, positive reception from the public, safer and more effective operations, more multidiscipline missions, and far more mission flights than they ever expected.

While it is conceivable to start a public safety UAS program with an equipment purchase under $3,000, implementing a public safety UAS program involves much more than buying a drone. Knowledge of such things as regulations, governance, policies and procedures, mission types (use cases), payloads, pilot training and proficiency, maintenance, data management, and privacy are all critical to a successful program. There is a great deal of information available that can be found on the websites of the Airborne Public Safety Association and the National Council on Public Safety Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Agencies with existing programs are another resource to turn to, and most will be willing, even eager, to share lessons learned.

More lives will be saved when UAS are more widely adopted, and now is the time to act.

Charles Werner speaks during a keynote session at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International Xponential conference in Denver on May 1, 2018. Jim Moore photo.

Charles Werner

Charles Werner is the chief emeritus of the Charlottesville, Virginia, Fire Department, and has served as a senior advisor and acting deputy state coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management. He is also the chairman of the National Council on Public Safety UAS, chairman of the International Public Safety Association UAS Committee, and an advisor on public safety UAS to the National Center of Security and Preparedness at the University of Albany.
Topics: Unmanned Aircraft

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