Drones have been around for a number of years now. Yet, it’s only recently that fire departments have begun to take flight with these pilotless video tracking and capture devices (UAS). The uses for drones in firefighting is life critical. Now, using a UAS, an incident commander can get eyes on the  a wildfire, an industrial fire, incoming weather, and other issues.

Many fire departments have been “investigating” drone use, and there has been some bad publicity as it relates to amateurs using drones and interfering with firefighting operations. Overall, there is much to commend the use of drones. It’s getting properly certified and configured that is key to making a drone investment work.

Pilot Requirements

Before you can operate a drone as part of a professional organization, there are some important requirements to be aware of. FAA regulations refer to the operator of a UAS as the pilot. The pilot must be at least 16 years of age. All pilots must pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test.

Looking beyond the basic test, each pilot must be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration. Visit Becoming a Pilot to prepare for the test. process.

There are a few exceptions. If you already hold a pilot certificate issued under 14 CFR part 61 and have successfully completed a flight review within the previous 24 months, you may complete a part 107 online training course. That will satisfy the requirement to be a drone pilot.

Operating Rules For a UAS

In the United States, UASs may only operate in Class G airspace (1-mile visibility, clear of clouds, and only daylight hours) and the pilot must always have the aircraft in visual line-of-sight. There is a 400 foot ceiling for flight and no UAS may operate at speeds in excess of 100mph.

Additional requirements include yielding to any manned aircraft, not operating from any other moving vehicle, ceasing operations on advice from FAA, fire, or law, and the UAS must not fly over people.

UAS Requirements

The UAS cannot exceed 55 pounds and must be registered with the FAA. Registration also can be done online.

Government Agencies

Government entities or organizations such as law enforcement agencies, public universities, state governments, local municipalities have several options for flying UAS.

The first option is that a fire department that is part of a local government (e.g. FDNY is part of the City of New York) may operate its UAS under the small UAS rule and follow all rules under 14 CFR part 107, including aircraft and pilot requirements.

The second option is to earn a blanket public certificate of waiver or authorization (COA). This would allow the department to operate drones within Class G airspace, engage in self-certification of its UAS pilots and the option to obtain emergency COAs when specific types of incidents are being managed.

Using a UAS gives a fire department the capability to evaluate a volatile situation more safely and efficiently without committing personnel and all of the issues that are related. Most UAS devices are equipped with high-resolution (HD or even 4K), live-streaming cameras. There are situations were optional thermal imaging cameras and gas sensors may be added as well.

UASs have already proven their value for hazardous materials detection and mitigation, assessment of wildland fires and ground search operations. These are some other very practical uses for UASs.

  • Getting a rapid 360-degree assessment around a structure fire, notably when that structure may be part of a larger footprint and have multiple exposures.
  • Rapid overflight assessment of damage created by natural and man-made disasters.
  • Evaluating firefighter performance during training activities.
  • In the near future, it may be possible to use a UAS to set backfires in remote locations as a component of battling a wildfire.

Before you buy

We all know that any equipment that’s carried aboard fire apparatus and used by firefighters must be rugged.

Before you purchase the first UAS for your department, do some research. Get some actual flight demonstrations replicating possible fireground scenarios. While doing research, start the process to acquire the COA from the FAA.

Develop a standard operating guideline for the care, maintenance and use of the UAS by qualified members of your department. The FAA’s Advisory Circular, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, AC 107-2, contains the information and requirements necessary to develop that SOG. Pay close attention to Chapter 7, sUAS Maintenance and Inspection, in the Advisory Circular.

The use of drones in the fire service is rapidly becoming a requirement for incident management. Tied in with software such as FireJournal, mitigating significant incidents will be easier with a technological toolbox at the ready.

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