Drones in the Fire Service

Using a drone never entered my thoughts as a first-out company officer. As a lieutenant in charge of a 109’ tandem axle ladder truck staffed with just a firefighter and me inside Horry County’s busiest battalion, I certainly never thought I would be in command of an incident where a drone would become handy.

Hurricane Matthew made U.S. landfall on Oct. 8, 2016, just 50 miles south of Myrtle Beach/Horry County (South Carolina) as a category-1 hurricane with 75 MPH winds. The storm had a significant impact, but my incident took place days later.

The Waccamaw River, which is connect to the intracoastal waterway eventually flowing into the Atlantic Ocean, crested in Conway, the central city in Horry County, late on Monday at 17.9 feet. The slow-moving river flow took nine days to hit the mark following Hurricane Matthew.

Due to the extended flooding operations from the storm, our department brought in many other resources, including the National Guard, the American Red Cross and many small boat teams as part of the South Carolina Firefighters Mobilization Act. We also used other such agencies as the Horry County Police Department and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources officers.

The next Saturday, one week after storm landfall, I arrived at the station to begin our first full shift back after a 24-on-24-rest schedule the previous week. I was met in the bay by the station captain, who told me they had utilized the National Guard MRAP (mine-resistant ambush-protected) vehicles and their crews the day before to make a couple voluntary evacuations, but “nothing out of the ordinary from the previous week.”

It was just after this statement that the tones dropped for two evacuation-type calls on different streets.

Station 1, Horry County Fire Rescue houses one squad, also known as rescue engine: one ladder truck and one medic unit with a daily staffing of six employees. The squad took the first incident, stating they would be taking the military National Guard with them for assistance.

My driver and I took the ladder truck to the second incident, with a small boat team of four rescue swimmers along for assistance. Upon arrival near the given address, we quickly realized flooding had increased from the night before, and hundreds of new homes were now beginning to be flooded, a full week after the storm.

The boat team was deployed to access the given caller’s address. As the team made its way into the neighborhood, they quickly realized the depth of the streets was too deep for walking and had to revert to paddling to the address. As they paddled in, many residents began asking if they could be evacuated. The requests were relayed to me, and I relayed to the storm operations channel that I would assume Rosewood command, reported the amount of work to be done at this location and requested they send the MRAP for an extraction.

Unknown to me, the squad that took the first call was only a mile up river, encountering the same type of situations. Eventually, divisions were created and command was taken by an on-duty battalion chief; my division evacuated 55 people and 34 pets that day.

Throughout this process, I had the opportunity to utilize the department’s new drone to help with my operations. It was utilized for aerial overlay of the neighborhood, real-time recon for active complaints and to provide safety to firefighters, police officers and military personnel operating within my division.

Drone technology can transform emergency response. During operations, a caller reported to dispatch that a 500-pound LP tank was off-gassing at one of the river houses in my division. The house was one of the furthest in my division, and I didn’t have any personnel to spare as all were actively involved in evacuations. The drone completed 360-degree flyover of the residence, discounting the caller’s report. This kept the evacuations progressing and saved countless hours and manpower.

The drone developed a 360-degree, real-time overview of my division’s flooding; it gave me, the incident commander, clarity as to what the layout of my division was. I was able to gain a more complete understanding of the incident in my area, looking at where the floods were, determining how best to deliver pivotal service to those in need and providing critical information to rescue crews—not just verbal information but visual information of the situation they were being deployed to and to do it more quickly than usual.

I could watch my rescue teams and determine entry and exit points and means of egress. At one point, I had control of one military National Guard MRAP, one Horry County Police MRAP, two small boat teams, a South Carolina DNR boat team and many firefighters assigned throughout. The aerial overlay let me actively coordinate all the units and their direction of travel. The drone was an extremely valuable tool in this situation.

The drone technology I used following Hurricane Matthew can transform emergency response of the future. Horry County Fire Rescue recently acquired the drone I used on scene and has put a captain through the FAA authorization process. Before being approved, the department must obtain authorization to use the drone, and officials hope to be done in May.

Horry County Fire Rescue Department is one of the first in the region to have unmanned aircraft technology, and we look forward to using drone capabilities in the future: helping to fight wildfires, conduct search and rescue efforts, monitor large events and help respond to environmental disasters such as flooding like we encountered in this storm.

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