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Is There Even a Role for Drones in the Fire Service?

Is There Even a Role for Drones in the Fire Service?

There has been much talk about the use of and Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), or drones as some people like to call them.

This is all new technology and while there is a rush to accept this technology as beneficial the final results are not in yet for fire and rescue services. And the reason the final results are not in yet is because there are not enough skilled and professional pilots who are qualified to fly a UAS in conjunction with fire and rescue services.

More research and study is needed to determine how a UAS can be best utilized to be an amazing tool to aid first responders in saving lives and property.

Now I happen to be a FAA certificated pilot and one of the very first to apply for a FAA Section 333 exemption to fly professionally with fire and rescue services.

I feel there is a great benefit to the use of a UAS but I’ve already uncovered some real issues and problems from my flights so far under the FAA hobbyist rules while I await final approval to fly under a Civil Certificate of Authorization.

If you’d like to support my FAA exemption application and comment publicly, please feel free to visit this link and click here to enter your comment.

My FAA exemption request I’m seeking approval for is “Description of Relief Sought: The petitioner is seeking an exemption to operate unmanned aircraft systems with a maximum weight of less than 55 pounds to perform public safety operations with fire departments, ambulance services, emergency medical service operations, and search and rescue agencies in order to provide real-time operational assistance in emergency operations.”

Keep in mind the FAA is most concerned about safe flight and competent pilots and not fire departments or EMS. I’d suggest your comment be about giving my application a thumbs up as a FAA certificated and qualified pilot so we can further the investigation of the use of UAS in public safety flights.

Lesson 1

It is just far too apparent to me how people off the street may assume that just because you can purchase a toy drone on Amazon or your local mall, that makes them competent to fly with emergency responders. Oh that is so not true.

I’ve watched too many people do things with their drones that is grossly unsafe and the thought of them flying near emergency responders, quite frankly frightens me at times. We need professional pilots with training and experience, not novices. You don’t just let anyone jump in and drive an ambulance, do you?

The reason these devices are called Unmanned Aircraft Systems is because they are aircraft and need to be operated as such in accordance with FAA airspace regulations. This might be an unpopular stance but I think UAS pilots need to meet FAA training guidelines first before they begin to fly. These non-trained pilots simply don’t know what they don’t know. Inexperienced pilots will make mistakes, frighten people, cause injuries, and setback this field for years.

For example, will inexperienced pilots know what controlled airspace is inappropriate to fly in and what communications procedures must be followed to comply with FAA requirements? Will they know not to fly

Lesson 2

I’ve learned that a UAS pilot at a fire scene needs to manage a lot of information that a firefighter never has had to deal with. The first big problem is to maintain a sterile cockpit. In piloting lingo this means to maintain a cockpit free from distractions so the pilot can be focused with the most important tasks at hand.

In the real world, the minute you pull out the UAS, people want to talk to you. That causes distractions and that can lead to silly mistakes. You have to tell people you can’t talk and do it in a polite way.

Then there are all the issues of safe flying. For example, even before you takeoff you have to consider if the current conditions meet the standards for flying under visual flight rules (VFR) or are below minimums.

Wind is another big issue. You need to be very aware of wind speed, gusts, and wind direction on your UAS. It is possible for gusty wind conditions to impact your aircraft and lead it astray.

On top of all that are scene management of all the vertical challenges which include wires, tall trees, obstructions to GPS signal, etc.

I plan to write a future article on what software tools and flight applications I have found most beneficial.

Lesson 3

Not every fire dispatch call is appropriate for UAS support. It’s knowing when to fly that is important. So far in my early flight research the most obvious beneficial flights are:

  • Structure fire.
  • Missing person.
  • Incident on busy road to monitor traffic to balance traffic flow.
  • Woods fire.
  • Open water rescue.
  • HAZMAT

Lesson 4

Because not every call is best suited for UAS support that means the UAS pilot has to engage in regular and ongoing flight training to be optimally ready when the call comes. A UAS is like any other piece of critical equipment on the truck. It has to be regularly checked and made sure both the pilot and craft are operationally ready.

Personally I log several hours a week of logged flight time to practice flight skills and specific situations.

Lesson 5

Make a checklist for everything. As an aircraft pilot I use checklists for every stage of flight. If it was possible, I’d have a checklist for my checklists. A good checklist helps you to not miss a critical step. I use checklists to fly my UAS craft and I turn to them on every flight.

Screen Shot 2014-10-23 at 12.45.53 PM

Lesson 6 Fight the urge to fly when flight conditions create unnecessary risk. For example, just a few minutes ago a call was dispatched for an appliance fire but with winds gusting currently to 18 knots, I’m not going to fly. Know when to say no.

More to Learn

There are more lessons to be learned during this evaluation period and I’ll keep sharing them with you.

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.

2 comments

  1. In your opinion, short of becoming a pilot, what does the non-pilot person do to get the necessary training to fly an UAV? Or, do you simply believe that you must get a pilot’s license?

    Fire Chief Steve Moody

    • Hi Steve,

      The requirement to be a private pilot comes from the FAA. In a recent exemption, and others granted the FAA position stipulated for approval to fly is that a UAS pilot must meet the following qualifications:

      “An abbreviated summary of those Pilot in Command (PIC) requirements include the following:

      a. The PIC must possess a Private Pilot’s Certificate and a valid third-class medical certificate;

      b. The PIC must have accumulated and logged a minimum of 200 flight cycles and 25 hours of total time as a UAS rotorcraft pilot and at least 10 hours logged as a UAS pilot with a similar UAS type (single blade or multirotor).

      c. The PIC must have accumulated and logged a minimum of five hours as UAS pilot with the make and model of UAS to be utilized for operations under the exemption and three take-offs and landings in the preceding 90 days.

      d. The PIC must have successfully completed the qualification process as specified in the MPTOM and FOPM, to include a knowledge and skill test.

      Eventually there will be some FAA certificate for UAS pilots with a special license as for sport pilot’s. But as of right now, that UAS license just does not exist from the FAA. Till it does all we can do to remain legal to fly is go by the current FAA rules.

      As it stands right now, to qualify for the easier FAA Sport Pilot license, which does not count towards UAS flight requirements you’d still have to meet the following requirements:

      To qualify for the Sport pilot certificate, an applicant must:

      Be at least 16 years of age (14 for glider or balloon)

      Be able to read, speak, write, and understand English

      Log at least 20 hours of flight time, of which at least

      15 hours must be dual instruction with a qualified flight instructor
      2 hours must be cross-country dual instruction
      5 hours must be solo flight

      Fly one solo cross-country flight over a total distance of 75 or more nautical miles to two different destinations to a full-stop landing. At least one leg of this cross-country must be over a total distance of at least 25 nautical miles (46 km).

      Have received 2 hours of dual instruction in the preceding 60 days, in preparation for the Practical Test

      Pass a Knowledge (written) test

      Pass a Practical (oral and flight) test

      Have a valid US State drivers license or a current 3rd class or higher Airman Medical Certificate

      I wrote more about the FAA requirements at http://psflight.org/93/faa-tips-hand-drone-pilot-requirements/