Drone technology is advancing on a daily basis – in most cases, faster than people can find uses for it. Drones are rapidly becoming commonplace in fire departments around the world and are being deployed in firefighting operations on a regular basis. It’s no wonder firefighters have embraced this new technology; drones are the perfect tool for collecting important live data to help streamline the efforts of first-responders, keep emergency personnel safe, and save lives.
Eye in The Sky
The way drones help firefighters accomplish their goals, first and foremost, is by collecting data. Drones have an incredible advantage in that they can literally be deployed within minutes of arriving on a scene. Response time is essential to any firefighting operation, and drones help fire crews keep the advantage by carrying out a multitude of functions – from instant flood lighting for nighttime operations to providing firefighters with a 360-degree view of the situation on the ground, which is especially valuable when assessing burning structures. Drones can help fire crews save valuable time in any dangerous situation.
Drone technology gives firefighters the information they need in real time, so they can make swift decisions about where exactly fire crews should go to best use resources. Using this newly available vantage point, emergency response teams can develop the best strategy possible to manage the fire. This is extremely important when considering deploying fire crews into harm’s way. With a drone, fire commanders have the best possible visual information to get an idea of what is really happening on the ground.
Enhancing drones to carry thermal imaging technology offers an added layer of information firefighters need when assessing a situation. This infrared technology can detect problems that manned aircraft may not be able to see. It can be used to locate the hottest and coolest parts of a building or see through walls, smoke, dust or any other obstruction, helping emergency crews determine the best course of action.
Fire departments are also beginning to use drones to stop fires before they begin. Many departments have been using drones to map out key buildings and facilities in their areas, such as schools and government buildings. Three-dimensional maps of such structures help firefighters learn where the exits are and can be used to provide emergency personnel a comparison between normal conditions and fire conditions in different parts of a given building. The Bureau of Land Management has started using these maps to evaluate wilderness areas for fire hazards and to monitor certain areas during peak season in order to quicken their response times, should a fire break out.
By far, the most impressive aspect of drone technology is how it can help to save lives. Using thermal cameras, firefighters can locate people who might be trapped on an upper level of a building or in a wildfire. Even without thermal imaging, the ability to see into windows and gain real time information on a situation within a burning building, or within a wildfire, can provide crucial information to help emergency crews save lives. According to the National Forest Service, emergency service plane and helicopter crashes are responsible for up to 24 percent of firefighter deaths from wildfires. This means that drones have real life-saving potential; it also reduces operational costs for emergency service departments, as these departments are stretched thin and can run out of aircraft relatively quickly; and drones have key advantages over conventional aircraft. Airplanes and helicopters used to survey wildfires and drop retardant can’t fly in poor conditions, and flying over raging fires puts pilots and other crew members at risk. By supplementing or, in some cases, even replacing traditional aircraft with drones, departments can dramatically improve the capabilities and safety of teams on the ground for a fraction of the cost.
Aerial footage of a burning fire can provide investigators with a virtual library of information. The collection of first-hand information about how the fire burned while it was active is a gold mine for post-fire information. The information collected in photos and videos can be archived and used for investigations to determine how the fire started. Drones are also useful when inspectors need to assess the damage caused by a fire in areas that are still too dangerous for firefighters to enter. Wildfires, for instance, can contain hot spots or small fires that need to be kept under control long after the initial fires are put out. Insurance companies also deploy drones to determine the severity of damage done to homes, businesses, and other properties.
The aerial video footage captured by a drone while a fire is active is also critical for firefighters’ post-fire assessments, as it can help firefighters critique their approach so that they can improve their tactics in the future. The information can also be used to train new firefighters, providing real life examples of how a fire might unfold and where decisions on the ground were made well or could have been made better.
Hybrid drones are the next potential game-changer for emergency services. Most drones in use today are powered with small electrical motors, which limit the drone’s flight time. A hybrid drone uses a small gas-powered engine to run a generator, which charges the battery. This type of hybrid will have much greater range, flight time, and carrying capacity, which means they can safely and economically replace more jobs that currently require a manned helicopter. In the very near future, this new type of drone could be deployed directly above a fire and remain for hours or even days, giving the commander on the ground a continuous stream of information. Drones are also being tested in picking up and dropping water to extinguish a fire; these drones could operate in adverse conditions and at night when helicopters would be grounded, or they can carry supplies to assist fire crews on the ground.
The future is bright for drones in the emergency service industry. With their ever-growing list of capabilities, drones are destined to help fire departments around the world save money, save time and save lives.