Fire departments, along with other public safety agencies across the country, are taking on the challenge of determining the right level of response to an emergency with the use of drones. In 2020, firefighters in the U.S. responded to more than 36 million calls for all types of incidents. And for every call, incident commanders (ICs) sought to protect lives and property and keep their crews safe while facing situations where they had an incomplete or imperfect view of the scene.
The use of drones for firefighting extends beyond enhancing situational awareness to all stages of emergency response, including:
- Preparation, such as fire prediction and detection and training.
- Firefighting operations, including situational awareness and search and rescue.
- Post-fire management and disaster relief.
Using drones for firefighting preparation
By helping with fire prediction, detection and training, a fire department drone can assist with firefighting before a fire engine even leaves the station.
Fire prediction and detection
Researchers have begun using drones to collect near real-time data for artificial intelligence (AI)-based platforms to model forest fire prediction and progression and detect fires. These platforms can help fire departments make faster decisions about resource allocation. Examples include:
- FireMap from the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego creates predictive maps based on data from drones, as well as satellites, sensors and cameras.
- A NASA-backed fire spread prediction model uses drones' atmospheric measurements of the wildfire canopy.
- The University of Toledo's high-resolution drone assessments of forest structure and patterns help predict fire risk.
- A U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded early warning system alerts firefighters when they may be in danger based on drones' fire and wind data.
- AI-based drone technology can quickly detect forest fires based on topographical features, vegetation and wind direction.
- Drones carrying instruments to measure data such as wind speed and direction help a University of Montana forecast model in development.
- The Paso Robles Fire and Emergency Services in California use a drone with infrared, thermal detection sensors to detect heat signatures in high-risk or remote areas, such as the 480-acre Salinas Riverbed. The fire department drone can cover this area quicker than someone could by foot and can detect fires faster.
A fire department drone can assist with training by recording responses to emergency scenarios, which can be reviewed later to highlight areas for improvement, alternative techniques and best practices.
Deploying drones for firefighting operations
Drones can provide data to leadership on the ground to assist with situational awareness, giving them the confidence to make decisions about fire ground operations and firefighters' movements. Drones can offer an expanded view of the scene, locate hotspots and search and rescue victims, and deliver supplies across rough terrain that would be difficult for crews on foot.
Drones are cheaper than airplanes and helicopters traditionally used to survey wildfires. They can also be used in situations where pilots and crew would be at risk, particularly important given about a quarter of all wildland firefighter fatalities are related to aviation.
With a fire department drone, crews can immediately gain a bird's-eye view when arriving on a fire scene, providing significant data and aerial intelligence prior to a fire attack and adding to an IC's situational awareness. Aside from assessing an incident, intelligence from above can also relay potential dangers, obstructions and trouble areas for crews on the ground.
In urban environments, such as New York City, both tethered and untethered drones can provide an aerial perspective quicker than traditional ground and extended pole cameras. Tethered drones can mitigate the challenges public safety drone programs can face in urban settings, such as radio frequency interference, tall dense buildings, congested airspace, ground congestion and privacy concerns.
Thermal imaging cameras can identify heat signatures, making them a valuable tool for fire crews searching a burning structure. With a fire department drone, crews can use thermal imaging without risking their lives or safety. Drones can fly above, around and inside structures, identifying hot spots or trapped individuals.
During the Nelson Creek Fire in Walker County, Texas, data relayed from drones for firefighting alerted crews to hotspots in the form of fallen trees with trapped heat, allowing crews to swiftly and safely douse the flames.
Search and rescue
One of the most well-known uses of drones for firefighting operations is in search and rescue responses. Drones equipped with spotlights, thermal sensors, speakers, HD cameras and other technical advancements allow crews to expand their search range and investigate areas that would be difficult for them to traverse on foot.
In some instances, drones can deliver resources to victims, for instance the delivery of medications or water, as they wait for responding crews to reach them. The South Haven Area Emergency Services uses a drone to drop a CO2-charged, water activated flotation device to swimmers struggling in Lake Michigan.
Drones for firefighting can also use thermal imaging technology during search and rescue operations, allowing crews to locate victims faster without putting crews at risk, particularly when the search area includes difficult terrain.
A firefighting drone program
Drones for firefighting have been deployed to assist controlled burning operations where they drop small incendiary balls to ignite the canopy. One drone can cover up to 4,300 acres in eight hours, and each drone can be reloaded in five minutes. Aerial ignition class is now offered as part of the National Interagency UAS Training Program.
Drones that can drop fire retardant on hot spots are in use in California.
Connectivity during firefighting operations
Tethered drones with cell service capabilities can be deployed during fires and other emergency situations where service may have been impaired to ensure first responders and others retain cellular coverage. Drones can provide coverage for an approximate five to seven-mile radius and can fly for up to 1,000 hours.
During the Big Hollow Fire in Washington, Verizon received special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to deploy a drone connected over 4G LTE to monitor communications infrastructure in an area where air quality was unsafe for humans.
Assessing fire damage with drones for firefighting
Drones can be used to survey a fire's damage, particularly in situations where the scene remains dangerous to first responders and residents.
In the wake of the deadly Camp Fire blaze that torched the town of Paradise, California, a fleet of drones, with the support of emergency responder agencies and local officials, flew 518 mapping missions and began cataloging the damage and sending the data to officials on the ground. Within two days, the drones had collected over 70,000 images as well as video and 360 panoramas.
This data was used to create detailed maps of Paradise's remains, which were then released to the public online, allowing residents to visually see their homes before the area was determined to be safe.
High-resolution light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data can assess a fire's impact down to an individual tree level, which can help create more detailed management plans. Drones can map fire scar impacts and can help predict landslides and flooding issues.
Drones can also spread seeds in wildfire-damaged areas to restore forests to their pre-fire state which can help reduce further impacts, such as erosion and mudslides. Land managers using drones can help accelerate reforestation six times faster than by hand planting.
Situational awareness requires network reliability
Modern firefighting isn't just about putting out fires; crews now have access to intelligent tools to navigate fire scenes more safely and with more precision than in decades past. Data from a fire department drone allows ICs to make more informed decisions about a fire attack, search and rescue tactics, and disaster relief.
But without a reliable and rapid network connection, life-saving data may be delayed or unavailable to crews on the ground. For crews to take advantage of the expanded intelligence drones for firefighting, ICs need a reliable network connection.
Learn how Verizon Frontline is working with public safety leaders across the country to help ensure members' safety.
The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.