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The Three Best Approaches to Finding Your Fire Department Drone Pilot

The Three Best Approaches to Finding Your Fire Department Drone Pilot

You would think getting a drone into service with a fire department would be a simple matter. But as with every other issue there can be more factors to consider when planning your department’s flight strategy and drone use.

There are three primary options for deciding who is best to operate a UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) or drone for your department. The three most obvious categories are:

  1. Train a Firefighter on Staff to Fly
  2. Use a Professional Aircraft Pilot to Fly
  3. Enlist the Help of a Skilled Local Drone Pilot As Needed

Keep in mind there is no one perfect answer but knowing what your options are will help you to make the best decision for your department and the maximum effectiveness of your drone oeprations.

Train a Firefighter to Fly

Flying a UAS or a Drone is not difficult. It’s basically up-down-right-left. But taking a firefighter off a truck or shift and asking them to fly optimally for maximum benefit can be a tougher proposition.

The first issue is one of manpower. By pulling a firefighter off regular duties they would normally conduct at a scene you are reducing your available manpower and somehow you have to get the firefighter to stop thinking like a professional firefighter and start thinking like a professional pilot. From my experience and point of view, those are the most difficult factors to overcome.

A drone is an aircraft and that old expression “you don’t know what you don’t know” is perfectly true when it comes to drone flight.

Your drone firefighter pilot has to add some new skillsets to their quiver. They must be a competent pilot, knowledgeable software technician, and willing to manage public and flying risks. They must also deal with additional certification and legal risks from flying.

Let me be perfectly clear, there are many talented firefighters who would jump at the chance to expand their knowledge and learn the role of a UAS pilot. They could become very exceptional pilots given the right situation.

But being a skilled drone pilot is about so much more than just up-down-right-left and it takes a lot of time and practice to develop those skills. It might just be unreasonable to expect a line firefighter to spend that much extra time to fly and build hundreds of hours of logged flight time and then be able to detach themselves from the scene, turn off their firefighter training, and focus on flying only.

However, if the only goal for department drone ops is just to get a higher look at a point on the ground, anyone on the truck or command vehicle can send up a drone and get video back. You just need to make sure the drone is flight ready when you need it.

There are many schools that will come to your station to give an introductory lesson and training for firefighters if that is the only solution you are looking for.

However if you want to get maximum benefit out of your use of a drone then we need to look closely at the next option.

Use a Professional Pilot to Fly

So much of aircraft piloting skills directly applies to drone operations. The lessons learned by aircraft pilots about the National Airspace, cockpit resource management, and the physics of weather and flight are very helpful foundational skills for safe and skilled pilotage of the department drone in difficult situations.

This pilot should be experienced in fire department operations and familiar with call response. They should be comfortably integrated into the department as part of the team as the drone pilot.

Granted, I am inherently bias in this assumption because I am an instrument rated pilot and compliant drone pilot. But this point of view is born from watching others attempt safe flight who are not aircraft pilots. And to be clear, I’m not saying it is a requirement. I’m saying it is very helpful in many ways.

A professional drone pilot who is not a firefighter is primarily focused on the safe and skilled operation of the drone to get the maximum benefit out of its use. The professional pilot’s job duties at the scene are not about the call and firefighting equipment or resources. Their job is 100% focused on the safe operation of the drone in the most effective manner to obtain the most helpful information for command staff to make the most informed decisions they can.

A skilled aircraft pilot with good drone skills can be safer and more comfortable with maneuvering a drone into unusual situations. And I’ve never been on any fire call that was standard everything is different all the time.

A flight competent professional drone pilot can fly in all situations, so naturally they can then spend more time and attention on FLIR camera and software management rather than basic flying skills. Each core skill your department drone pilot has will free them up to focus on the next most important factor for any flight.

Required skills fall into the following ranking:

  1. Safe Operation and Control of the Aircraft
  2. Good Communication With Others
  3. Situational Awareness
  4. Managing the Next Task or Factor Ahead. Thinking Ahead About Weather and Human Safety of People on the Ground
  5. Managing Time. Flight Time is Limited so You Must Prioritize the Available Time With Needed Tasks and Assignments
  6. Information Management. Gathering Good Data From Which Commanders Can Make Informed Decisions
  7. Software Operation of Both Aircraft and Camera Processing Systems (Think FLIR Options)

I’m lucky enough that the Wake Forest Fire Department has brought me on as the Chief Pilot for drone operations. In this capacity I carry the drone and respond to scenes as requested. We are flying the DJI Matrice 210 for all weather operations and dual camera capability. This aircraft also allows live video to be streamed back to any command location.

Wake Forest Fire Department Fire Chief Ron Early was also an adopter of the approach to not take a shift firefighter from their duties which reduced manpower. If you would like to communicate with Chief Early about his position and thoughts on this approach, he can be reached here.

At this point the clear downside is not every shift will have a professional aircraft pilot available to fly a drone mission. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It will stop the unnecessary launching of drones which reduces risks. In our early stages of the integration of drone operations it will leave the scene commanders to determine if a drone is required for a particular mission. The pilot will then be called in and will make the sole and informed decision if it is safe to fly.

The Future of Fire Department Flight

As the capacity of UAS and drones accelerates, the growing skills required to maximize drone operations may require dedicated pilots just like an engine requires dedicated personnel. But in the future, more drone operations will become autonomous and may not require a dedicated pilot at all.

At some point in the next decade we will see drones dispatched from the station when a call comes in. The drone will fly ahead to the scene and transmit video back to the responding units so an early call can be made to turn back unneeded manpower and equipment which will help to save resources and reduce risk.

If your department is unable to create a solution with a dedicated professional pilot then there is another option.

Use a Skilled Local Drone Pilot

There are many very good drone pilots who may be happy to volunteer for your department on an as needed basis. And while the pilots are competent and talented you will have to spend a sufficient amount of time to manage their occasional integration into the fire response flow.

One significant advantage of this approach is that any good and competent pilot is constantly monitoring their drone aircraft for software updates, making sure it is always in operational condition, and has many hours of flight experience under their belt.

But the non-integrated department pilot will have an entirely new set of skills to learn. While the firefighter lacked the piloting experience, the non-integrated pilot lacks the firefighting experience, including the issues associated with call response and the management of the public at a scene or what to specifically look for to best assist.

If you’d like to contact me to discuss any of this information, please don’t hesitate to complete the form below.

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About Steve Rhode

Steve is an experienced and certificated UAS pilot and aircraft instrument rated pilot. He is also the Chief Pilot with the Wake Forest Fire Department.