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Top 5 reasons fire departments should have drone programs

Firefighters in yellow helmets standing near a red firetruck in the daytime.

How drones can help fight fires, save lives and protect property

Firefighting is a dangerous job. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that firefighters sustained a total of 118,070 injuries over a five-year period from 2015 to 2019. The top causes of firefighter injuries were exposure to hazards and overexertion.

Drones for fire departments can address both of these causes by providing eyes and advanced technological capabilities in situations that are too hazardous for people. Drones can also help fire departments fight fires faster and more effectively, lower the chance of firefighter injury and improve firefighter performance. With their ability to be operated remotely and suites of advanced technology, drones provide critical information and capabilities that can enhance any fire department’s ability to save and protect lives.

Here are the top 5 reasons fire departments should have drone programs.

Need more? Read The ultimate guide to firefighter gear is 2024 for more resources for your department.

Situational awareness

Firefighters are expected to always be there when we need them. When a fire breaks out, a vehicle crashes, someone is sick or in need of attention or an emergency strikes, firefighters are typically the first to respond. When they arrive, their situational awareness often depends on factors beyond their control, such as the nature of the emergency, the information gathered by 911 dispatchers or details passed along by other first responders.

Situational awareness refers to the perception and understanding of a situation. Firefighters need to quickly get up to speed on the exact nature of the emergency so they can decide how they’re going to respond to it. The information they collect will impact how they do their jobs and what measures they must take to protect their own lives and the lives of others.

With built-in cameras and infrared sensors, drones for fire departments can enhance situational awareness by providing aerial video and images of an emergency scene before firefighters arrive. Using a platform like Axon Air, drones can use secure livestreaming to provide critical situational awareness.

This drone video footage from a fire in the Bronx, New York City demonstrates the effectiveness of fire drones for enhancing situational awareness. In the first half of the video, you can clearly see the fire raging, as well as the outline of the building and the approaches to it. These kinds of overhead views are invaluable for first responders, providing them with detailed information about how to respond to a fire. The second half of the video demonstrates the drone’s infrared sensor in action. This displays the fire’s hotspots and can help in assessing how best to fight it.

Drones can fly above traffic and in a straight line to a location, making them faster on-scene than most passenger vehicles – even fire trucks. This makes them perfect for performing reconnaissance before firefighters are on scene and a force multiplier for situational awareness.

Post-disaster damage assessment

When disasters strike, infrastructure can be severely damaged. Roads can become impassable due to debris, downed power lines or flooding. This can make it impossible for most vehicles to access damaged areas or reach people in need of rescue.

Due to their size and flight abilities, drones can fly where other vehicles are unable to go. They are light, small and only require power to fly, making them uniquely suited for assessing damage after an emergency when resources are at a premium. Some, such as the Fotokite Sigma, can fly and record footage indefinitely by remaining tethered to their deployment point. That deployment point could be the back of the fire apparatus, the roof of a car or anywhere else a pelican case can lie flat. Launched at a safe distance from hazards and debris, the drone can see over obstacles, hover over disaster scenes and transmit video and infrared sensor images to firefighters. This can help first responders determine the severity of damage and locate people in need of rescue.

One example of drones responding to an emergency is the Axon Aid team’s response to Hurricane Idalia in Lowndes County, Georgia. The eye of the hurricane passed directly over Lowndes County in August of 2023, bringing sustained winds in excess of 105 miles per hour, snapping over a thousand of the county’s power poles and leaving residents dealing with historic damage and an emergency declaration.

Axon Aid responded by dispatching three drone pilots for a three-day deployment to help the county’s Sheriff’s Office, firefighters and first-responders assess the extent of the damage. The Axon Aid drone team flew 138 missions in response to Hurricane Idalia, covering the 85 damage targets. With the help of Axon Aid’s drones, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office was able to provide adequate proof of damage to meet the threshold for FEMA assistance, opening the door for federal recovery funds and a FEMA Disaster Recovery Center.

“They were especially helpful in a particular area that nobody can get to because of road blockages,” said Lowndes County SO’s Lt. Bair. “They identified 6 homes with trees sitting on them. [Our fire department] was elated.”

Fuel mapping

Wildfires require three components to start and spread: heat, oxygen and fuel. Heat elevates the temperature of a fuel to its flashpoint (the lowest temperature at which it will catch on fire), and when supplied with oxygen, it ignites. Of the components of the fire triangle, the one we can control is fuel.

Departments managing wilderness lands need consistent information about fuel and forest structure over relatively large areas to evaluate the risk of wildfires and plan how to put them out. Managing wildlands is, therefore, often a struggle with managing or reducing fuel. Whether that’s trees, grasses, shrubs or structures, fuel in the way of a fire must be reduced or eliminated. With around 650 million acres of wildlands in the U.S., that can feel like an uphill battle.

Drones for fire departments can help with fuel mapping, providing aerial views of lands that are out of the way or difficult to reach on foot or by vehicle. With a drone’s high-definition camera, departments can make detailed overhead maps of wilderness areas, taking note of sources of fuel that will help a fire spread. This can save time and potentially lives, reduce the risk to firefighters and offer a low-cost solution to the needs of cash-strapped wildlands departments.

Search and rescue

In search and rescue, time is the greatest enemy. Drones can respond to a scene quickly and, using thermal imaging, locate people who may be trapped under rubble, obscured by smoke and at night. Drones can also go where other vehicles can’t, providing views of wilderness or areas with damaged or remote infrastructure.

With advanced imaging technology and an unmatched ability to create situational awareness from the sky, drones are the perfect tool for aiding search and rescue teams. Take a recent example from the mountains north of Santa Barbara. A search and rescue crew was dispatched to locate a lost hiker after sunset. Searching in the dark, the crew managed to make voice contact with the hiker and then located them with a thermal-equipped drone.

Without the drone, the search would likely have taken hours. With it, it took minutes.

Drones as first responders

The most critical resources in any emergency situation are information and time. The sooner first responders know what they’re dealing with, the better able they are to plan a response and dispatch resources to respond.

Traditionally, when a call comes in, 911 dispatchers will collect information from the caller about the nature of the emergency, dispatch the call to the appropriate first responder, and then continue to collect information from the caller if possible. But staffing shortages and budget cuts across the country have impacted even 911 dispatchers, even while the number of calls in many jurisdictions is increasing. This has made it difficult for 911 dispatchers to remain on the line with callers, making the traditional method of gathering information less effective and, in some cases, creating slowed response times.

This is where Drone as First Responder (DFR) programs are coming to the rescue. DFR programs help departments multiply the impact of their existing forces with high-tech solutions. DFR programs allow public safety agencies to remotely deploy and operate drones on a scene, providing first responders and dispatchers with real-time views of what’s happening before they arrive. This increases awareness of the situation on the ground and speeds up decision-making about what assets to deploy, resulting in better outcomes for the community.

Although only police departments have created DFR programs so far, their utility for firefighters is clear. Dispatchers can now deploy a drone to gather more information from a scene. The drone, providing overhead video and infrared imagery, can determine the size of a fire, its severity, what exactly is on fire and whether or not there are people in need of rescue. This directly impacts how fire departments will respond, how much and what kinds of equipment they will dispatch to the scene and how they will prepare.

For example, this drone video shows an overhead view of a multi-vehicle accident on U.S. Interstate 44 in Conway, MO. Firefighters dispatched a drone to assess the crash and utilized the resulting video in their response.

The Police Department in Chula Vista, California, was the first in the nation to deploy a DFR program. They now operate drones for 10 hours a day from four launch sites, totaling over 17,000 DFR missions. Of those, about 25% were able to be resolved without the need to deploy an officer. Since deploying its DFR program, Chula Vista PD has reduced its average response time to around 90 seconds, less than half of the national average.

Firefighting drones can be an invaluable tool for your department. Whether for increasing situational awareness, providing post-disaster damage assessment, fuel mapping on wilderness lands, conducting search and rescue operations or deploying a DFR program, drones can help your department save lives and protect firefighters. To learn more about how to equip your department with drones and how Axon can help you get the most out of your fleet, reach out today.

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