ELP duo collaborate on drone potential

A career firefighter and long-time aviation researcher who formed a team while attending the Center for Homeland Defense and Security Executive Leaders Program are expanded their classroom study on drone use in the fire service with presentation at the National Fire Protection Association’s annual conference in June 2015.

Yonkers, New York, Fire Chief John Flynn and Bart Elias of the Congressional Research Service are using their complementary operations-research experiences to explore how drones could benefit modern firefighting inexpensively while adhering to constitutional concerns and public leeriness.

“That is one of the neat things ELP does,” Elias said. “Everybody knows a little bit about different pieces. As you get to know each other you see synergies develop, people see things they can use in their own day-to-day operations.”

1) Fire service professionals see a wealth of potential operational benefit owing to their affordability and the breadth of area they can cover, Flynn said.

“Reach, speed, safety, and cost – those are the real benefits for fire service and government agencies,” he added.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs, proved valuable in providing situational awareness to incident commanders during the August 2013 wildland fires in Yosemite National Park in California where they were utilized by the California National Guard, for example. Drones can provide similar benefit to flood response as well as large-scale searches in remote areas, from mountainous peaks to expansive bodies of water, which would typically take a labor-intensive trek on the part of a search and rescue team.

In more urban areas, unmanned aircraft can provide incident commanders in the fire service with what is called a “six-sided” view of a burning structure as the commander manages assets and staffing.

“A fire chief is always trying to maintain situational awareness,” Flynn said. “It’s difficult to do in urban areas. A drone can do that very quickly and you’re not endangering lives.”

Another safety and cost benefit would be for hazardous materials and weapons of mass destruction, Flynn said. Drones could conduct real-time atmospheric monitoring whereas traditional practice is to have responders don protective equipment, manually check meters for toxic emissions and then

“If you have a drone with the ability to do airborne sensing it can communicate the message back quicker than with present-day capabilities,” Flynn said.

2) As with any disruptive technology, UAV technology brims with as much constitutional concern as it does potential. Public safety agencies thus far have been hesitant to employ drones stemming from privacy issues, including data captured passively or as an unintended target of an investigation, as well as the duration of how long information captured by a drone is stored.

Fire agencies that wish to use material recorded by drones for training purposes, for example, may conflict with privacy rights of victims from those events, Elias noted. Another challenge in the proliferation of drones is that hobbyists and even small news organizations on shoestring budgets can afford them, which could crowd the space above emergency scenes and hinder operations.

“Those drones could be on scene when firefighters arrive to set up the incident command,” Elias said.

3) Public safety agencies in the U.S. have been slower to embrace unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) than their peers in Australia and Canada and Federal Aviation Administration officials have lagged in regulating the aircraft. Optimistically, a framework for allowing more routine use of drones by public service agencies could be in place by the end of 2015 under the FAA’s UAS integration plan, but details of how this would work have not yet been made public.

FAA published proposed rules for commercial operators of small UAS in February 2015, but it will take some time before those are cast into a final set of regulations. FAA may continue to apply the brakes on drone use if lingering safety concerns are not adequately addressed.

Legislation of various ilks has been introduced in Congress as well as at the state and local levels as elected officials struggle to fill the regulator void. A recent Department of Transportation study forecasts federal and state sectors will be operating up to 36,000 unmanned aerial systems by 2035.

“I think there will be a tipping point where the fire services will really see the value of having these eyes in the skies,” Elias said.