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Aerial view of a firefighter wearing a helmet using a drone next to a firetruck

A View from Above: Increasing first responder situational awareness with drones

October 26, 2022

When approaching an emergency or disaster, the more information public safety can gather, the safer and more efficient the response can be. In recent years, agencies have turned to drone technology to help piece together that vital situational awareness for major events. These “eyes in the sky” can provide a more complete picture of the situation and travel places where it may not be safe for humans to go.

From missing person searches to weather-related emergencies and accidents with hazardous materials, drones are keeping responders safe and aware.

Conserving Resources

Lightning strikes are extremely common in Boone County, Kentucky, home to the Hebron Fire Protection District. The fire district relies one of its drones, which can fly in any weather and in winds up to 40 miles per hour, to assist in damage assessment after a major thunderstorm.

“When we have lightning strikes, we can put this device up in the air and use the thermal camera to check for heat signatures in attic spaces,” explained Hebron Fire Protection District Assistant Chief Brandon Johnson. “That prevents us from having to dedicate resources to searching areas that that we don't need to search. If there's something on fire in an attic or smoldering, it becomes very clear with a thermal imaging camera."

Assistant Chief Johnson also noted that the fire district uses the thermal camera on drones to assist personnel during missing person searches. For example, during a search for an individual who wandered into a wooded area, the department used its drone to check for heat signatures through the forest’s heavy canopy. This information helped ground personnel narrow down search areas, saving critical time in finding the individual. The drone was then used to help navigate personnel and the individual to safety.

Similarly, the Durham Fire Department in North Carolina uses its drones to determine where to concentrate resources during search and rescue operations. “We’ve used drones on a number of person searches,” said Division Chief Dan Cremeans. “During those searches, the drone may not have actually located where they were, but it was able to rule out areas requiring detailed searches, so that reduces the number of personnel needed.”

Responder Safety

In addition to helping respond more efficiently, the Durham Fire Department uses drones to keep firefighters safe during high-risk situations. In nearby Winston-Salem, a fire broke out at a fertilizer plant filled with hundreds of tons of highly flammable chemicals. Residents within a one-mile radius had to be evacuated and responders had to retreat.

Durham Fire Department and other local agencies were called to the scene, and their drones were launched to provide footage of the scene back to the command post. Division Chief Cremeans explained, “The technology enabled the command staff to keep firefighters and other responders a safe distance away from the product that had the potential for a catastrophic event.”

Similarly, when a train derailed in Milam County, Texas, responders were concerned about potentially hazardous materials (HAZMAT) spilling, either from fuel or from the contents of the train cars. In order to keep responders safe, the Burleson County Sheriff’s Office flew a drone over the scene to provide critical information to help local law enforcement make informed decisions.

“[It] would take a lot of manpower, a lot of time, to get somebody to walk those tracks and try to get close enough. You didn't have to do that, the drone was able to do it and get the live [video] feed back and … get the information they needed to get for that HAZMAT teams,” Burleson County Sheriff Gene Hermes said.

Streaming Seamlessly

During the train derailment, Sheriff Hermes and his team were able to monitor the drone’s live footage back in the department’s conference room using FirstNet. Burleson County Chief Deputy John Pollock noted, “With using the FirstNet technology, the speeds that we've been able to connect and the reliability of it … we've actually done tests of standing in front of the drone and looking in the conference room and the delay is just very minimal. When you're talking about a live video, that's crucial because you could have a threat that could appear, and what the drone operator's seeing live or what the commanders are seeing to make some type of a decision, that has to be reliable.”

Austin-Travis County EMS in Texas also relies on FirstNet to stay connected and stream video footage during the famous South by Southwest (SXSW) conference. The annual event attracts hundreds of thousands of people to the city, meaning commercial networks quickly become congested. With FirstNet, Austin-Travis County EMS has priority and preemption, allowing them to remain connected. When flying their drones over SXSW, the video footage is immediately available to decision makers, enhancing the safety of all attendees.

For the Hebron Fire Protection District, FirstNet is providing a quick and reliable network connection that is crucial for streaming drone footage. Nearly 750,000 people were expected to attend a local Labor Day fireworks show, and first responders knew communication would be difficult. With FirstNet, the department was able to stream 4K video to four different locations.

“It's just incredible that while people can hardly send a text message, we're able to get enough bandwidth to transmit that video,” said Assistant Chief Brandon Johnson. “The stability and reliability of the network and the priority and preemption are absolutely key for us.”    


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