Canadian Firefighter Magazine

From the Editor: July 2015

Laura King   

Features Hot Topics Opinion

I don’t know much about drones. You may not either. I do know that technology is a good thing, and that anything that makes firefighters safer is welcome. iPads. Thermal imaging cameras. Simulation software.

So far, however, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, are unregulated and unproven and, according to our story on page 16, require training (how much training is unclear) and must be piloted by someone on or close to the fire ground.

If my understanding of UAVs is correct, it’s also wise to engage personnel in addition to the pilot – a safety officer and someone to liaise with the incident commander. Some departments using drones say training can be quick and easy.

Costs range. Privacy issues haven’t been fully explored.

Critics might ask what crucial fire-ground functions are being overlooked at a fire scene while one, two or three personnel launch a drone.


How and why do departments determine the need (or desire) for UAVs? What  SOGs should be developed? What do you need to know about wind and weather patterns?

The Dieppe Fire Department in New Brunswick was among the first in the Maritimes to acquire a drone, for $3,500.

According to a CBC News story in June, Division Chief Marc Cormier had practised flying the UAV every day for a month. He told the CBC that doing so requires focus. Cormier is one of three drone pilots in the department who learned to fly from a local enthusiast – there are no standards for training. The Moncton airport is notified every time the drone flies. Is there time for that in an emergency?

In Austin, Texas, the fire department is doing a four-year study of UAV use. It also produced an 80-page research paper called “The practicality of using unmanned aerial vehicles for damage assessments.”

“The dilemma for Austin’s disaster-response team is generating timely reports that accurately depict the extent of damage during the early stages of a disaster,” the paper says. It recommends UAV use in disaster-
ridden areas.

“UAV retooled for civilian … applications are clearly beneficial instruments that strengthen situational awareness and improve the prospects of successful emergency management operations . . . ”

The paper also calls for policies and protocols for UAV  training and certifications.

Last year, Austin founded a robotic emergency deployment – or RED – team. It comprises four pilots and four Federal Aviation Association ground-school certified members. The team is the first in the United States and the first with an FAA certificate of authorization.

In June, after widespread flooding, the team started to explore ways to use UAVs in everyday operations. The team was still waiting for council approval to buy its own drones, and the funding to do so.

There are lots of examples of UAV use in fire – sizing up a hazmat incident, managing large-scale events such as outdoor concerts or road races.

As I wrote this in mid-June, Deputy Chief Arjuna George of Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue tweeted a photo of an image taken by a drone of training, and the message “A game changer for fire operations.”

Some of you may follow P.J. Norwood on Twitter (@PJNorwood).  Norwood is the deputy chief training officer in East Haven, Conn. He wrote a piece on drones for another publication’s website back in October.

“We must not become so technology-focused that we forget about the most important thing we have: our firefighters operating on the scene,” Norwood said. “As it is with all technology, when used properly, drones can enhance everything we do. When used properly, technology can have a positive impact on firefighter safety, fire-ground tactics, training, and many other operational scenarios in emergency and non-emergency tasks.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

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