Fire Departments Nationwide Are Warming Up to Drones

Fire departments, like police departments, are discovering the many uses of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  Whether they’re conducting aerial surveillance or active fire suppression, fire-fighting drones can contain blazes more quickly while reducing property damage and saving the lives of first responders and fire victims alike.

Most of the media coverage regarding drones and fire-fighting has focused on the massive wildland fires that erupt seasonally in California and Oregon.  In fact, far too much of this coverage has been negative:  State fire-fighting agencies still favor the use of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters to support their ground operations; they tend to view drones – especially those flown by nosy recreational fliers – as a nuisance, if not an outright obstruction, that makes their work more difficult.

But fiscally-strapped urban fire departments need all the help they can get.

The size of the department hardly matters.  Take, for example, Phoenix, Arizona.  In the first nine months of 2022, the city’s fire department deployed its three new Skydio X2E drones to the site of 21 structure fires, helping ground crews target the sources of the blaze.  The three state-of-the-art drones come equipped with dual cameras, one with infrared thermal imaging capabilities, another with high-intensity optical zoom.  In theory, all three can operate at night, but so far, the department has taken a measured “crawl, walk run” approach, only deploying them on weekends and during daylight hours.

“We’re on a mission to convince the public of the value of our new drones, one fire-fighting success at a time,” a local fire official says.

Because the drones can be deployed so quickly, they can arrive on the scene of a blaze to establish situational awareness of a blaze long before department road vehicles arrive.  They can also penetrate through the billowing smoke and flames to monitor the first responders’ ongoing fire suppression effort, redirecting resources as needed.

And, of course, the drones can document the entire fire suppression operation on video, allowing department managers to review “lessons learned,” provide operational instruction to new trainees, address potential liability issues and educate the public about why drones are needed.

Drones are expensive, but that hasn’t kept smaller fire departments from finding innovative ways to purchase them – usually just one to start – and then sharing their new resource with other nearby first-responders.

In Allegany, a tiny town in upstate New York (pop. 7,000), the local volunteer fire department purchased a small DJI drone in 2020 and gave it a good workout, mainly rescuing lost hikers.  But this year, the department decided to upgrade to  the DJI Enterprise M30T Series, which has advanced features geared to the full range of first responder needs.

“It has a much better camera with a 200X zoom and a much better thermal (infrared) camera,” Robby Jones, head of the department’s Technical Rescue Team,  told the Olean Times Herald last week.  “It flies with two pilots, one to fly and the other operates the cameras.”  A third member of the team is also trained to fly.

Jones’ team obtained a certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration that allows it to conduct Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations up to nine miles away.  Previously, the team’s drones were limited to just a two-mile radius. In addition, under FAA rules, all drone flights must not exceed 400 feet in altitude,

How can such a small department afford to purchase an expensive new drone?  Sharing the aircraft with other nearby first responders – including forest rangers searching for lost and missing hikers –  helps justify the added cost, Jones says.

In fact, local taxpayers foot just half the $20,000 bill for the new DJI.  The other half came through donations after the department circulated a special fundraising letter.

Allegany fire chief Rick Stady, who’s served in his position for the past 12 years, recalled a time when the department was dependent on road vehicles and foot patrols, and lost precious response time.   Local residents can see the difference, and have responded warmy to the department’s funding appeals.

“It’s definitely good for the community and surrounding area, [to have these drones]” Stady says.

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