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Drones: Friend or Foe of Firefighters?

*This article is part of IPS’ July focus on technology and its impact on public safety.*

By Leischen Stelter, editor of In Public Safety

On July 12, a civilian-operated drone forced firefighters battling a 35-acre wildfire in Southern California to ground supporting air tankers. This was the fourth such incident in a month where a drone disrupted firefighting efforts in California, according to a news article in FireRescue1.

While federal authorities attempt to restrict air space over wildfires, many civilians continue to illegally fly these unmanned aircraft without permission in an effort to get a bird’s eye view of the fire.

[Related Article: Court Rules on Civilian Drones Used to Record Police]

Drones_2“These drones are airborne in an area where live pilots are flying. Pilots cannot see these four by four-foot aircraft especially since they are often made of material that can’t be picked up by radar,” said Captain Peter Jensen, a 26-year wildland firefighter with the Ventura County Fire Department in California. “Drones are dangerous because pilots and air traffic controllers have no way of anticipating what ground-based pilots are going to do with these aircraft.”

While civilian-operated drones pose significant dangers for firefighting operations, the use of drones by the fire service holds many potential benefits. “Drones would be a generous increase in our capabilities regarding communication, safety, and command and control,” said Jensen.

Improvement to Communication
Communication during a wildfire is one of the biggest challenges for firefighters. “In the wildland arena, the general topography makes it difficult or impossible to talk with someone on the other side of a hill,” said Jensen. “If there was an unmanned aerial platform that we could use above the fire, we could use it as a radio relay or repeater of channels for that particular fire.”

One of the largest challenges in the fire service community continues to be the lack of interoperability between systems, said Aimin Alton, a firefighter also with Ventura County and a member of FIRESCOPE’s Emerging Information Technologies Specialist Group. “For example, often times computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems cannot talk to neighboring agency’s CAD systems,” he said.

While interoperability is a large-scale national issue that must be addressed, the concept of using drones to host Wi-Fi or other communication platforms to allow local fire departments to communicate during a fire could solve these smaller communication challenges. Such enhanced communication abilities could help firefighters of different agencies communicate with one another.

Enhanced Safety for Firefighters
Drones could also enhance safety by helping to monitor the behavior and movement of the fire. “Commanders could have increased situational awareness of what is going on around the entire fire,” said Jensen. “If that platform could give back real-time visual data—whether its infrared or video—we could see the fire behavior, see the direction of fire, and identify the outside initial boundaries of the fire.”

[Related Article: Integrating Drones into Disaster Response Operations]

Having real-time information about the location of firefighters would also greatly enhance safety. One of the primary issues that resulted in the death of 19 hotshot crew members battling the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona in 2013 was because command and control personnel were unaware of their exact location. When an emergency was declared, the crew was not where they were thought to be. Drones could be used to track crew members’ exact locations “and provide better situational awareness to supervisors,” said Alton.

Limitations of Technology
As with any technology, drones pose many implementation challenges. For example, drones would need to be hardened so they can operate in a harsh and hot environment. They would also need to be equipped with technology beyond infrared cameras so they can “see” through a plume of smoke.

In addition, the network would also need to be secured so footage and data were not available to the public. And, of course, there’s the issue of funding to purchase, maintain, and support this technology.

Information Overload
One often overlooked issue with technology adoption is information overload. How much information is too much? Who should get the information? When does information stop becoming useful and just become noise?

Fire leaders need to address how to get the right information to the right person at the right time. “Should information be given to firefighters on the ground or should it just be available to the incident commander?” asked Alton.

There is also the concern that technology may become too central to firefighting operations. “We have to be careful not to become so reliant on external data inputs that we lose track of what is going on in front of us,” said Jensen. “When we have to, we still fight fires with shovels and dirt, using good-old fashion firefighting techniques. We must ensure firefighters maintain such basic firefighting knowledge and they don’t start to rely too much on technology.”


Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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