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Unmanned Aerial Systems: Potential Meets Reality

Over the last decade, unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drone usage, in military operations had been well documented before being made available to the general public. This has changed dramatically with the advent of extensive drone usage in commercial and recreational settings.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, sales could grow to 7 million units by 2020. As a result, there’s been increased interest in the fire service, which must be ready for UAS potential to meet the modern-day reality of our operations.

In August 2015, Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr, IAFC President 2015-2016, established the Unmanned Aerial Systems Task Force to explore opportunities and challenges UAS vehicles could present; the task force was led by current U.S. Fire Administrator Keith Bryant.

Their work resulted in development of a comprehensive toolkit that outlines potential fire service tactics, policy, technology, research, regulations and operations. It also established the framework for the development of NFPA 2400, Standard for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Used for Public Safety Operations.

The birth of Orange County Fire Rescue Department’s (OCFRD) UAS program was spurred through participation on the IAFC’s task force, coupled with having departmental champions Battalion Chief Jason Perrigo and Lieutenant Jamal Afrifa, whose passion and dedication laid the groundwork for establishing our fledgling UAS program.

However, turning a vision into actualization often takes time, effort and support.

In 2017, after several presentations to Orange County Administration and Mayor Teresa Jacobs on the potential of a fire-rescue-based UAS program, a presentation was given to the Orange County Board of County Commissioners. The presentation outlined a number of potential uses for fire-service UAS vehicles, including:

  • Response to structural fires
  • Emergency medical scenes
  • Hazmat response
  • Water rescue
  • Disaster response
  • Wide-area search
  • Wildland firefighting

The response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive of establishing a UAS program. As with any new technology, the challenge was then for the program to live up to its lofty expectations.

Search and Rescue

The first major opportunity to truly test the viability and value of the program would present itself in the form of Hurricane Irma.

Irma was approaching Florida as a category-5 hurricane and promised to deliver statewide devastation. In our planning for the storm, we staged our UAS operators with other operational assets as part of our preparation phase of the storm. They would assist in our post-storm rapid damage assessments.

The value of performing aerial surveys of large flooded areas quickly became apparent after the storm passed, where the surveys helped to identify areas needing evacuation.

With the use of the UAS, we were able to quickly assess and assign resources to the areas of greatest need. The footage was transmitted to the EOC, where the county’s policy group could visually evaluate damage and make decisions based on what they saw.

UAS captures image of flooded buildings.In one particular search-and-rescue operation, a UAS was surveying an apartment complex that was inundated by several feet of water. Crews had removed all of the known victims and the UAS was making a final pass of the perimeter adjacent to a conservation area.

On this pass, the operator spotted the face of a little girl looking out of a top-floor window. The information was transmitted to the on-scene incident commander, who directed crews into the building. When they arrived, they found the child and her single mother, who simply stated, “We’ve been waiting for someone to come and rescue us.”

Structural Fire Response

On the morning of November 2, we received a call for a possible structure fire located at a Public Storage warehouse. The call was received at 09:18:38, with the first unit making arrival at 09:22:31.

Upon arrival, the first unit established command, performed a size up and gave an initial report of a commercial structure, with smoke and fire showing on the B and D sides of a 30x350 storage warehouse.

As information and additional units were en route, one of the departments’ UAS operators heard the call and began to make his way to the scene, arriving shortly after the initial units.

The UAS captured a picture of warehouses from directly above (smoke location added in red and blue icons).Within minutes, the UAS was hovering above the scene, providing valuable information that helped the incident commander formulate an incident action plan (IAP).

The IAP was fairly straight forward, as OCFRD had confronted several of these storage warehouse fires over the years.

The tactical considerations included:

  • Providing a size-up
  • Ensuring resources matched needs
  • Considering life-safety issues
  • Protecting exposures
  • Stopping forward progress of the fire

The IC provided the size-up, called for needed resources, communicated with the facility operators about possible victims and directed crews to cover exposures.

It also captured a picture of the firefighters attacking on the B and D sides.When discussing the IAP with Command, he stated crews were assigned to get in front of the fire to stop any potential forward progress; additional crews would work back toward the A side of the building to extinguish any remaining fire. While this was a sound tactical model, the challenge became placing crews in the correct position.

Immediately after having this discussion, our UAS operator produced several live overhead pictures of the building, consisting of video, still pictures and infrared images. These provided the IC with situational awareness to help him make efficient tactical decisions.

Infrared image of the storage warehouses.The UAS pictures and video showed the heated areas of the structure in varying shades of red and showed a clear delineation (fire stopped wall) to the cooler parts of the structure in blue. The footage also served as an excellent training tool and platform for our after-action review.

Both of these incidents are examples of how the use of UAS in the fire service has the potential to change the operational realities. In fact, when speaking about the use of UAS technology within the fire service, I discuss a future where UAS technology will be available to every fire service IC—if not every unit—as an integral decision-making tool.

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