Skip to main content

Fire departments have augmented first response capabilities with firefighting quadcopters, but drone technology does not always go over well with fire crews. Conflict occurs when hobbyists fly drones over active fire sites, interfering with airborne operations, and forcing fire officials to ground air tankers and helicopters battling the blaze. 

The mix of good and bad prompted the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to issue Part 107 Rule taking effect in August 2016, a summary of guidelines regulating drone usage for commercial and private users. The gist of Part 107 provides safety regulations for drones weighing less than 55 lbs. and removes the licensing restriction for firefighting and commercial operations.

The hope is that the guidelines will give fire departments an easy route for incorporating drones into their toolset, and a way for drones to co-exist with other airborne measures. Whether or not this will ground hobbyists trying to take aerial footage of a burning wreckage is anybody’s guess.

Just this week, a hobbyist drone stifled wildfire containment in San Bernardino County, an hour east of the Newegg HQ in Southern California. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group said firefighters had to shut down airborne operations fighting a blaze burning 6,300 acres and counting—only 6% under containment at the time.

There are positive signs however. Dozens of forward-thinking FDs have started using drones in a variety of ways.

Fire departments flying drones of their own

Commercial drones with 4K cameras—primarily a tool for filmmakers until now—stream real-time images back to firefighters providing critical information for operational decision-making. They are fitted with heat-sensing visual equipment. GPS-based controls help pilots avoid obstacles, and can bring the drone back home on autopilot if signal is lost or a malfunction occurs. Operators have fine-tuned control over camera angle and zoom functions.

Some fire departments have invested in military-grade UAVs for drone ops, which can run upwards of $20,000 per unit and have rugged builds. A legitimate commercial drone for firefighting can be deployed for under $5,000, and FDs are starting to catch on.

Let’s look at how seven drone-flying fire departments are using commercial drones in action.

Water Rescue & FEMA Documentation
West Haven, Conn.
This Atlantic coastal city fire department deploys a DJI Phantom quadcopter ahead of first responders for water rescue. It is also used to document storm damage, providing before and after images that the city uses to secure Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) resources. Source

Gathering Training Footage
Orange County, Calif
Southern California firefighters use drones to capture footage during training procedures.

A drone captures a high perspective shot of a ‘probie’ officer cutting a pitched roof prop at the training center.

Wildfire Recon
Big Rapids, Mich.
In the rural north woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, firefighters use two small quadcopters for wildfire recon and search and rescue. It helps officers tasked with covering wide areas of densely forested landscape. The department secured a $7,800 grant from an energy company to purchase the drones. Source

Hazmat Firefighting
Council Bluffs, Iowa
Firefighters from this small town on the Missouri River use an Inspire 1 quadcopter to inspect hazmat situations. Officials cited 4K wireless video transmission and temperature detection technology as the key features for deployment. Source

Snow Damage Assessment
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency purchased two military-grade unmanned aerial vehicles that the department uses to inspect rooftops threatened by heavy snowfall in the harsh Canadian winter. In the summer, UAVs fly recon over wildfires. Source

Finding Missing Persons
Toledo, Ohio
Oregon, a Toledo suburb on the Lake Erie coast, uses drone technology to locate missing persons with cognitive disabilities such as dementia and Alzheimer’s that may cause them to wander. Enrollees in Project Lifesaver wear wristbands that the drones can track. Source

Evacuation Procedures
Gurnee, Ill.
This industrial city’s fire department in the Chicago outskirts uses drones to assess hazmat situations. The footage helps officials determine evacuation procedures in a swift and timely manner without putting officers at risk, as was the case in a recent propane depot blaze. Source

Final Thoughts

Drones are a potential game changer for fire departments’ first response deployments. As for the hobbyist pyro-pilots interfering with firefighters with their drones, who knows? That’s one for the comments section.

Will adding rules and regulations to drone technology ground irresponsible hobbyists from flying in the way of fire departments?

Sparks Fly for Drone Technology and Firefighters
Article Name
Sparks Fly for Drone Technology and Firefighters
Fire departments have augmented first response capabilities with firefighting quadcopters, but drone technology does not always go over well with fire crews.
Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

More posts by Adam Lovinus

What's your take?