The Role of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the Fire Service and EMS and What it Takes to be a Good Pilot

The age of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), or drones as some people call them, is upon us. While both Amazon and Google have announced plans to use these unmanned vehicles for commercial delivery services, there some dramatic and incredibly beneficial uses of these unmanned aircraft in public safety fields outside of law enforcement.

I happen to be a UAS pilot and have been flying for a couple of years now. Rather than an academic article about what might be possible I thought it was important to share with you what is actually able to be accomplished today and in the near future with UAS technology readily available and some lessons learned about practical flight operations.

The military drones we see on television news are large aircraft that can fly long distances, for hours, and deliver munitions on distant targets. That is not the type of aircraft that is beneficial to a local EMS or fire and rescue department. Instead those departments need something that can hover for long periods of time, fly slowly, fly low, fly inside structures, and deliver HD video back to the ground where immediate decisions can be made by command personnel.

The UASs available today to small departments are closer in relation to a radio controlled aircraft than a war fighter vehicle. The UASs typically weigh less than five pounds and have a range of a half a mile or more. There are a number of these UASs available on the market now with many more to come. Some are available to be purchased from Amazon for less than $1,500 and the prices from specialty vendors go up above $100,000.

The current iteration of the leading edge prosumer UAS also provides a live video feed from a HD video camera mounted underneath. The model I currently recommend for new UAS pilots to get experience on is available here.

The HD video camera is mounted on a gimbal to minimize camera movement. This allows the pilot and observers to view a video image from the UAS in order to make immediate decisions about the emergency at hand.

It is undisputed there are a number of legal issues that still need to be sorted out regarding the professional use of UASs. The Federal Aviation Administration is slowly at work on these issues and has unveiled its first approach towards licensing pilots of UASs. At this time the process is clouded in uncertainty and confusion.

Departmental pursuit of an FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA) to fly a UAS is currently not a process for the faint of heart. The process is an incredible pursuit of hurdle jumping, permission asking, and reams of documentation preparation. The starting point for official COA information is here.

There is little connection between some of the current FAA requirements of an approved UAS pilot and the operational responsibilities on the ground. For example, currently the FAA recommends UAS pilots have a FAA private pilot license, have passed a FAA approved ground school, and hold a second class medical certificate.

However much of the information required to be mastered in achieving ground school and a private pilot license does not apply to the average professional UAS pilot at all. That is not to say that training does not provide some valuable information.

The law is far behind the accelerating path of the use of UASs and the slippery slope of liability will continue to be a problem. But the best way to address those issues by a department is by using your head and working with an experienced UAS pilot to learn how to manage risk and operational issues. By focusing on those issues the problems can be significantly reduced.

And as I’m going to show you, a UAS can be safely operated to minimize liability and flown safely to manage risks. The key though to this risk assessment and management is a keen awareness about the operational capabilities of the craft and an understanding of the types of situations that can lead to less than optimum outcomes.

For example, if your flight operations area is going to be over an open area, there is substantially less risk to manage on a moment-by-moment basis. But if your operations area is up against a stand of woods then you have to be aware of how to control the UAS if you had an unexpected control issue or operational issue since now half of your flight area may be restricted. Essentially you become hemmed in with only half an escape route.

And in a life or death situation the ability for the UAS pilot to continue to operate the craft and fly is crucially important. You want to stay airborne in a controlled manner to accomplish the mission, not needlessly fly into a stand of trees and be out of action.

A UAS pilot who is not ready and prepared to fly their aircraft instantly and respond with full manual controls is more at risk of a crash than one who is skilled and practices with manual flight.

This can and does happen. For example, recently I was working with a new student and training them to fly a UAS. Their aircraft began to lose stability and began to fly in a widening set of concentric circles. Without some type of intervention it would have crashed into the nearby woods.

The ability to override automatic operation of the craft and instantly know how to bring it back under control and land, was critical. In the case of flying on a public safety mission, that ability and knowledge is mission critical.

In the past year the critical importance of the UAS has been proven time-and-time again. The lessons learned show the UAS can be an invaluable tool for fire and rescue command to use rather than the front line emergency responder.

In one example the UAS was flown at a woods fire that turned out to not be at the address given or dispatched. After a nearby safe launch point was located the UAS took flight quickly. Within a fraction of a minute the smoke from the fire was located about a half mile away from where firefighters were told to go. The direction the smoke was drifting made it not visible from the road below in the dense trees.

A UAS is like having a ladder truck that can go up 400 feet or higher and allow the firefighter to look around. You can imagine how having a vantage point like that can quickly give you information you can use to better manage the scene. And isn’t scene management really about getting the best information you can as a commander to make excellent decisions?

Rescuers say one of the most difficult aspects of a large waterbody rescue is just finding the person in trouble before they drown. Time is of the essence. If they are not located and rescued quickly the chances of a successful outcome rapidly diminish and the odds increase the person in trouble will survive.

In the open water test conducted a small boat headed out on a large lake. The UAS pilot had no clue where they were and in just forty seconds after launch of the UAS, the boat was first located tucked away in a cove. They were then found again on open water. The UAS was able to descend and evaluate the trapped patients before any rescue personnel reached them.

Rather than rely on the injured patient to try to tell dispatch exactly where they are located, using a UAS you can quickly find them.

These same lessons can be applied to some EMS situations as well. Take for example a lost dementia patient or a person trapped on a ledge. The UAS can be used to search for patients from the air and/or evaluate the condition of someone trapped on the side of a mountain. Using a mounted FLIR (thermal imaging) camera a lost child or dementia patient could be quickly located from the air. These are real events.

In one of those examples an elderly female patient wandered away from an assisted living facility. State Troopers, police departments, and fire departments were called in to search the woods, creeks, areas under bridges, and brush, on foot. Bringing in all those resources took critical time. No helicopter was immediately available.

In the case of the lost child, fire crews also had to move from place to place, raising their ladder in hopes of spotting the child who may have been lost in the nearby thick woods. While the fire department had an ATV to use it could not travel at will through dense stands of trees on very uneven terrain. A UAS equipped with a FLIR camera in that situation would have been invaluable and cleared large areas quickly to allow emergency personnel to move ahead.

I’ve also observed situations where a quick aerial search could have helped departments locate a missing person. Many times they are not located using the current conventional approach. It seems by the time the correct resources are at hand, organized, and coordinated, the person in trouble to be located has had time to move far beyond the initial search area. Crews are potentially chasing the missing person, not ahead of them. The UAS can quickly get ahead of them and work back towards the starting point.

An airborne FLIR camera is also invaluable in a structure fire situation. Chief Ron Early of the Wake Forest Fire Department said, “There are so many unknowns in a structure fire, but from the outside there are several clues that would lead us or the interior crew to have a better idea of what’s going on on the inside. Having that aerial view from the outside not only gives us a 360 of the building, but gives it a three-dimensional view of what’s going on, including above the building where ventilation is critical to fighting the fire, and to be able to see where a good location for vertical ventilation would be applied.

That way we can send in extra crew to that roof in order to vent in the right place, because in a fire situation, venting the building is just as important as applying water to the fire. The aerial view, especially with aerial FLIR use, would really show us the hotspots of the building, which would help command direct the units both internally to where the fire is and to apply proper horizontal or vertical ventilation to the building.”

But is an airborne thermal imaging camera even really necessary? Chief Early, an experienced firefighter said, “Early in my fire career, when thermal imagers were even talked about, it was the concept of a camera is not gonna replace a fireman’s ability to determine the location of the fire and how to best extinguish it. The thought was there’s no way this camera could replace that. The thermal imagers never replace a fireman’s sixth sense but it has definitely made an improvement on their ability to both find the fire and find victims in a fire.“

Jeffrey Hammerstein, paramedic and public representative of the cutting-edge Wake County EMS department in Raleigh, North Carolina said, “There are myriad of ways that collaborating with a UAS operator for real-time scene video could be very beneficial. Locating an injured hiker, searching for a suspect, providing a close-up view at a hazardous materials spill, or zeroing in on a brush fire are all ways a UAS could be immediately useful.”

A good example of the life-saving value of a UAS was a story a fire chief in Kansas told me. He said a person had become trapped in the middle of a raging flood swollen river and the rescuers tried and were successful in getting a rescue line to the patient. The patient grabbed the line but not knowing what the rescuers wanted them to do with the line they jumped into the water just holding on to it. They lost their grip and started to be drawn away. A firefighter jumped into the river to save the person and unfortunately both drowned. It is quite possible both lives could have been saved with the exchange of information between the rescuers and patient.

A UAS can also be used to deliver a light cell phone, radio, or message to a trapped person as well. This would allow emergency personnel to communicate directly with the patient.

If the trapped person could have been calmed and given instructions on what was going to happen and the plan to use the rope it is not hard to see a different end result.

A UAS could have quickly flown out over the trapped person with a lightweight sign underneath giving them instructions on what was going to happen next. I’ve demonstrated the practical ability of a current UAS to do this. Using a firm but lightweight piece of foam core, some velcro attachments, and a bold marker, information can be quickly written and flown out to the trapped person to read in less than a minute.

A trapped person in a river can only benefit from knowing a flotation device or rescue line is going to be headed their way and a cell phone or radio will be delivered to them in just a minute. Using either the sign approach or radio the person can be more informed about the events to unfold and how to participate in order to have the best chance of survival.

Not long ago a call went out for another fire in the woods. Upon arrival a UAS was launched and quickly located smoke drifting above the canopy of dense trees. Flying over to the smoke and then descending, the source was not a raging woods fire but an unattended backyard fire in a controlled area that did not pose an immediate hazard.

All of these examples demonstrate the positive uses of the UAS but it is time to talk about the current drawbacks, limitations, and dangers. And also what makes for a good UAS pilot.

In the case of the backyard fire described above, one sentiment I have heard from people is they feel the UAS could invade their privacy. Firefighters and EMS members have expressed that same sentiment to me. But the reality is that there isn’t much difference between the use of a UAS and what current rescue personnel see now from the top of a 100 foot ladder or the inside of a house. First responders already see much more personal items and situations now while walking through a structure than they would from above with a UAS. A UAS pilot is never going to know what kind of underwear you wear or pills you take.

The biggest obstacle right now is not to identify if UASs can serve a critical role in firefighting and EMS uses but how to best implement the technology.

I also happen to be a private pilot and come from a background of being trained to operate aircraft professionally and safely. A fire department or rescue squad purchasing a UAS off Amazon and trying to use it tomorrow in an emergency situation would be a recipe for a nearly unlimited menu of possible disasters.

UASs are both a simple and complex tool. They are an aircraft and susceptible to issues like wind, rain, bad weather, and other atmospheric surprises. Flying at night creates an entirely new set of issues as well. It is tricky at best.

UASs have advanced capabilities, like returning to the point of takeoff if they lose the radio signal to the control unit. They also have the ability to just head off out of control due to an unexpected technical malfunction. One police officer who also flies UASs as a hobby related the story of how he was flying in a stadium parking lot and his UAS just broke free from his control and headed off at 30 MPH in a straight line till it eventually collided with a light post and crashed.

But even the largest airliner can crash due to unexpected technical issues. Take for example Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris in 2009 which had an issue that began as a simple frozen speed indicator and eventually led to the loss of all 228 people on board. Technology breaks.

UAS crashes will happen and this is a good time to talk about the reality of the accident. There are two groups of low flying UAS pilots; those that will crash and those that have. A crash is almost inevitable. But we can minimize those unfortunate incidents by operating the aircraft in a safe manner with situational awareness.

It is purely for this reason I am not currently in favor of any department purchasing a UAS for a large sum of money. Not only may the craft be lost by new pilots in a virtually unlimited number of situations but as cutting-edge as UASs are, a $25,000 UAS today will only cost $2,000 a year from now. While that might be exaggerated a bit it is true the UAS technology is evolving quickly and with evolution comes a decline in cost.

As a comparison of the rapid decline of technology, a 1981 IBM PC with 64 KB of memory, a single 512kb disk drive, and a basic video display would cost about $9,000 in today’s dollars. A computer today with 50,000 times more storage, lightning fast processor speed, and a larger a color monitor, can be purchased for less than $300. In 1981 dollars that would be only $114.

The evolution of hardware and software has driven technology prices down. The same will happen in the UAS marketplace and I’ve seen examples of this happening in just the past two years.

As Ben Miller, Unmanned Aircraft Program Director for Mesa County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado said, “Current UAS pricing is a race to the bottom as manufacturers reduce prices to seize market share.” I consider Miller to be a leading advocate in the role of the UAS in law enforcement and public safety. He says his department UAS pilots have flown some missions to support local fire departments.

It is not unreasonable to foresee a department affordable UAS in the next couple of years that can be fit with a lightweight thermal imaging camera, send high-definition video to a command pilot, and have the range of several miles. These will probably be in the $10,000 range.

While the investment in a departmental UAS might inflict some financial pain, Miller estimates the cost of operating a UAS is less than 3 percent of the cost of operating police helicopters or airplanes.

That being said, there are some tradeoffs.

The range of the UAS is problematic because it amplifies an inherent weakness in UASs, operational vision.

A UAS does not have the same simple ability to quickly look around as you and I do. Instead you have to stop forward flight, hold your altitude, and do a complete 360 degree turn to acclimate yourself with your immediate surroundings and evaluate flight risks.

As a private pilot I never fly near obstacles but as a UAS pilot it seems I’m almost always flying near some sort of obstacle that can bring down the craft.

Earlier I talked about a backyard fire where the pilot had to descended down to get a better look. That descent was through an opening in the trees and the only way to fly that route safely was to restrict movement to only vertical motion or rotation of the craft. No other motion inputs would have been safe.

To prepare to fly such a route you have to identify a safe point of descent, maneuver the live video feed camera down in various degrees so you can clearly see the area below, around you, and nearby, then slowly rotate the UAS to get a clear 360 degree view of the descent zone, pick a landmark and visualize the distance from that landmark, and then descend very slowly. At the same time you must be ready to bailout at any point by swiftly flying straight up to safety.

The visual point of reference is important to give you a point you can see and trust to determine if the craft might be moving away from the planned descent point. If it appears you are drifting too close to an obstacle you must take immediate corrective action or the UAS may crash into the tree and be stuck beyond any reach and lost.

With small UAS craft a crash is not likely to result in the fatal injury of someone on the ground. The bigger risk of injury of a person on the ground would come from their own distraction in watching the craft in operation and not paying attention to what is happening around them.

This is where the skills of a good UAS pilot come into play. In my mind those skills are based on a thorough knowledge of safe flight and while it might not be required, I feel my experience as a private pilot has been very beneficial to educate me in a culture of operational safety. But then again law enforcement and EMS personnel are already trained with those same skills of risk management as well.

While it could easily be argued that a FAA private pilot license is not necessary to be a good UAS pilot, I would say it certainly does not hurt. Knowledge and respect of flight operations in general is a good foundation for piloting a UAS.

I’ve made mistakes as a private pilot that directly apply to my role as a UAS pilot. Here is one of the tough lessons learned.

One day I lifted off in a single engine airplane at a local airport. I was in a hurry to be someplace. The visibility at the time of departure appeared to be legal but near minimums. My need to arrive on-time neutralized the good sense I should have had. It wasn’t till I lifted off that I quickly found myself in heavy fog or a low cloud that had been masked against an overcast sky even though the FAA weather observations said it was not there.

I fought the urge to panic and quickly told myself that although the airport was right below me it was unsafe to descend in those conditions. My goal was then to maintain control of the aircraft and continue to climb through the low visibility patch which turned out to be only a couple of hundred feet thick. I also knew I had safe airspace above me because I was monitoring airspace radio communications and knew there was no other reported aircraft traffic around me or in the airport pattern.

The lesson learned that directly applies to UAS pilotage is that up and an awareness of the airspace you are operating in is very often your best friend and maintaining control of yourself and your craft in an unexpected situation is your top priority.

In the case of the backyard fire I mentioned above, if the UAS had been observed moving from the vertical axis selected as a safe route the pilot would climb the UAS straight up to a point above the trees and an altitude already noted as the bailout height.

Some fire and emergency command personnel might not yet see a need for the UAS in these services or roles. But as Early says, “My first thoughts on the whole concept is, yes, nothing – in my opinion right now – can replace firefighters on the ground. You cannot put a fire out without having that human instinct involved. So I think any time you talk about technology or unmanned devices getting into the fire business, the thought of that is it’s not possible. But what you have to think about beyond the actual application of water on a fire or rescue a person, there are other components of the fire and rescue business that we need to look that would enhance the actual hands-on application.

So my thing is keep an open mind to this technology, because all I can say is that it will enhance what we’re already doing. Therefore, in theory, we’ll save lives in the future regardless of how we apply it. And there will be opportunities where lives are saved because of this technology, and it should also help preserve property, reduce damage based on fire, water, whatever the incident may be. Having this early warning system or a better view of an incident can only help.”

Critical Operational Skills

So let’s talk about some items I feel are critical to safe operation of a UAS in the fire, rescue, EMS, and public safety service.

Know Your Safe Altitude – After launch be sure to look in your direction of travel and identify the tallest object along your route. You should be flying a UAS that provides you with telemetry feedback like direction, altitude, speed, and other data.

Look for the highest object, fly near it, move the onboard camera to a full forward-looking horizontal position, note the altitude and add 50 feet to that number. That becomes your minimum emergency bailout altitude. This of course requires you to fly a UAS that provides realtime telemetry back to the pilot.

Pre-Flight – Just like in a large commercial jet pilot, the role of a checklist is invaluable. And in my opinion it is imperative for any fire and rescue pilot. Having flown a number of test flights in emergency situations the mere fact you are flying in a real emergency itself creates an event which can easily distract the pilot from focusing on flying the UAS. You have to learn to manage both your role as a UAS emergency pilot and your role as an emergency team member.

Roles – In a perfect world the first responder UAS pilot should probably not be a front line firefighter or first responder unless that person can put a large amount of their training out of their mind and instead focus on the two core skills that I feel are needed as a good UAS pilot. The first is to operate the craft is a safe manner. The second is to operate the craft in a way that can provide command team members with the most amount of helpful and actionable information to help them direct resources in the most appropriate way. That requires the pilot to also be an effective radio communicator and pass on information that is mission critical.

Telling a commander that the missing person is “over there” is not helpful. Instead, let the scene commander know the person is below where the UAS is hovering. Use the UAS to provide easy ground based location identification. For example, if the scene commander can’t see the UAS, fly it back to a point where they can see it and then let them follow it back to the person you’ve located.

Find the Best Location for Operations – A UAS pilot should not necessarily respond to the address emergency personnel are dispatched to. Instead they should independently decide on the best operational area that provides them with the optimum vantage point for UAS operations for the situation. This means they need to have a general awareness of the area they operate in.

For example, in the case of a lost person on one of our large local lakes, the better operational zone would be from a bridge that crosses the lake rather than the boat launch address the water rescue craft is headed to. The UAS pilot can then coordinate flights by radio with the incident commander.

A UAS pilot in an optimum location with a department radio is a substantially better resource for command team members than being parked up behind the last truck.

Practice, Practice, Practice – There is no replacement for frequent flight operations to maintain those automatic responses needed to fly a UAS in the safest way possible. Even I notice a difference in my flying abilities if I don’t fly at least weekly.

I make it a point to fly in simulated operational situations on a regular basis and regularly make both day and night landings to maintain my currency.

The more flight time and practice that can be conducted, the more proficient the pilot will be.

Logbooks – Just like a private pilot, a UAS pilot who plans to fly professionally for a public safety agency might want to think about maintaining a flight logbook, just like a professional pilot, to record operational hours and types of goals and missions accomplished. At some point in the future, documentation of flight operations may be a requirement by the FAA. The solution I personally use is LogTen Pro.

Tell People You Can’t Talk Right Now – Inevitably someone is going to want to talk with you when you are flying but your focus must be on the safe operation of the aircraft so it’s faster and easier to ignore them or just let them know you can’t talk right now but will answer any questions they have when you are done flying. Better yet, have a friend keep them back. When you are ready to answer questions from the public they will be keenly interested.

Think about it like this, when you are taking off on a commercial trip you don’t want people talking to the pilots and distracting them. They operate in a sterile cockpit environment for a very good reason so they can focus on the job at hand.

The Future of the UAS in Emergency Response

It is quite likely the UAS will become more prevalent for fire and EMS departments. Eventually a UAS that is launched on dispatch and flies ahead and hovers over a scene can provide a live high-definition video feed while responders are in route and help them be more aware of the situation at hand.

Chief Ron Early of the Wake Forest Fire Department added, “One of the biggest things we find in vehicle accidents is at times we either have too many units coming, which in itself is a hazard when you have vehicles respond in emergency mode on public streets. Therefore, if we have an advanced visual image of the incident, it would help us cut back some of the units or, if the incident’s larger than what we expected, then it obviously gives us that early warning to have more units coming.

And do we need specialized units? Is somebody trapped? Is there a fuel spill? Is there something unknown that we didn’t get through dispatch that we’d be able to dispatch units, the right units, earlier in the incident? Because a lot of times, responding to a vehicle accident, the traffic itself hinders our response time. So it slows us down to get on scene and it depends on where and how quickly the aerial device can get on scene that would really help us relay information to the incoming units.”

The role of the UAS has yet to be defined in fire and rescue but one thing I can say for sure is they will play an important role in saving lives.