Since the West Midlands’ Fire Service became the first fire brigade in the UK to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) operationally, as far back as 2007, it’s hardly surprising that the wide array of advantages opened up by this technology has been revolutionising how emergency services and other Category 1 responders carry out their day-to-day operations.
Some of the fire services within the UK who have run a drone pilot project or have embedded UAVs into their operational infrastructure so far are:
- West Midlands Fire Service
- London Fire Brigade
- Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service (in collaboration with Cheshire Police)
- Kent Fire Service
- West Sussex Fire and Rescue
- Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service
- Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service
- Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service
- West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service
- Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service
The benefits of data-streaming offered by drones
Drones can be fitted with a range of specialist payloads that can stream back data instantaneously. This capacity alone makes them an invaluable asset in improving and updating the way that the UK’s fire service operates.
Drones are perfect for providing real-time data about evolving, remote or hard-to-reach emergency situations, particularly in high-risk incidents with a potentially lethal hazard (such as an environmental incident with a potentially toxic plume, nuclear incidents, or fires at a power station, or site with incendiary substances). Utilising drones in these situations reduces the risk to human life.
For example, with the ever-increasing occurrence of moorland fires in the UK, a DJI Matrice fitted with a DJI Zenmuse XT2 thermal-imaging camera can inform firefighters of pockets of peat that are still smouldering underneath areas they had previously extinguished.
Better-quality risk assessments mean lower risk to life
Where drones are being used, the tactical and strategic leads (depending upon roles and responsibilities within specific organisations) can use data being streamed back from the drone in real time. This informs and strengthens their risk assessments. When using live data from an incident, tactical planning/deployment decisions can be taken on the basis of a more complete picture, instead of necessary and time-sensitive decisions being made on the basis of an incomplete picture.
Using drones to gather on-the-spot intelligence at an incident’s location additionally means that the initial fact-finding can be carried out without the danger to life that ‘boots on the ground’ would entail. The fact that drones are aerial also means that they’re more agile and quickly move around rugged terrain. And in motorway incidents, where accessibility by a road vehicle is impossible, a drone bypasses the traffic blocks, getting crucial information back so that the best course of action can be decided upon immediately.
This very much lends itself to drones being deployed in a data-gathering capacity in road crashes and other traffic incidents, to give a detailed and/or high-level picture of the developing situation. This sort of intelligence is invaluable in strengthening incident command’s situational awareness. And better situational awareness makes for sound, effective decisions, which lead to better outcomes for everyone involved. Again, in situations where multiple agencies might be responding, the data which streaming technology and logistical advantages offer makes sharing intelligence instantaneous. The minutes which manually sending an update would have taken, can make all the difference in an emergency. Especially where there’s the added complexity of co-ordinating cross-agency responses.
Pix4Dreact is a rapid 2D mapping software that can assist emergency services personnel in the wake of a situation to quickly survey an area to plan their operations. Real-time mapping enables rescue operations to identify how they are going to get from point A to point B in the most efficient and effective way. Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) can be established and aid stations – such as water, food and safety supplies – can be set up in a safe manner to the point where they are most needed.
Increased capacity for multi-agency working
As well as the increased safety and reduction in lost time (maximising the likely success of tactical units deployed to an incident) that are offered by drones, there is a myriad of other benefits which can be truly game-changing in ensuring the best possible outcome in disaster and emergency incidents for operational teams, public safety and partnership working.
Drone mapping software offers the additional potential to get a real-time visual overview to instantly share intelligence with the strategic and tactical leads. This data can be shared onwards with operational teams on site, as well as partner organisations who have the setup to share this data, drastically reducing the likelihood of tactical decisions being made on the basis of old data and providing a shared situational awareness for all partners to work together more effectively. This means increased capacity for logistical coordination, more effective planning and decisions, with less risk to life, and a far greater likelihood of a positive resolution for all involved.
Thermal-imaging cameras offer additional benefits to emergency-service providers and Category 1 responders. With a thermal camera fitted to a drone, you can track and spot missing people in remote areas, and in the dark. Not only this but the thermal-imaging capabilities make light work of spotting illegal cannabis farms from a distance, and the relatively small size of the drone makes it far more stealthy than a helicopter flying overhead, meaning that criminals would be far less likely to realise they are being surveyed, and take evasive action. And of course, the fact that the drone can access areas of suspected criminal activity, and can take photos, gives a new level of investigative support.
For search and rescue operations in remote and rural areas, thermal cameras can help provide information not only on the location of missing or lost people but whether they have hypothermia. Therefore a decision can be taken around the urgency and equipment needed, in each case.
With fire response, thermal cameras provide added value in terms of hot-spot locations in a blaze, and gas cylinders at risk of exploding. Being able to see the fire’s structure using thermal imaging can save firefighters from injury or loss of life. And knowing whether other people are present in the building or surrounding area means that a rescue team can be deployed quickly and efficiently. With this sort of crucial intelligence, firefighters would be in a position to find people in danger far more quickly, and track the best and safest route to reach them – with any new dangers being communicated to them immediately. This means more lives can be saved with less risk of injury.
Norfolk police credit the rescue of a pensioner who had been missing overnight to the thermal-imaging capabilities of their search-and-rescue drone. Sgt Alex Bucher from Norfolk Constabulary said: ‘Without the police drone we would not have been able to locate him in the time we did. It allows us to search areas that are difficult to access and within close range where a helicopter may not be able to get.’
How can the emergency services afford to train up new drone pilots, or recruit qualified pilots?
Low overhead options
New drone pilots can undertake the full training programme online, meaning that they can up-skill and receive their accreditation. The advantages of this approach are financial but they also minimise the impact on resource planning. The courses themselves can be less costly to the customer since an online training course only requires data and bandwidth. With no room hire, refreshments or physical learning materials involved, the overheads are minimal.
Minimal resource impact
From the customer’s perspective, this option means that they will experience no impact on their travel budgets, no associated staff expense claims or accommodation bookings, and no lost staff hours in travel time. For the public sector, online drone pilot training is likely to be the most cost-effective option for them; getting highly trained, qualified specialists for less. With such a widespread range of safety and performance benefits, incorporating drones into the fire service’s operations helps keep people safer, improves the robustness of planning and tactical decisions and makes it possible to improve performance, results and resource management.
But ultimately, it’s always going to be worthwhile to invest in technology that can help protect life, provide a strategic perspective and improve public safety.
Emergency Services – current free training offer
In that spirit, COPTRZ is currently offering free drone training for members of the emergency services – so whether the requirement is to up-skill your existing staff, or to build in additional resilience into your teams, there’s absolutely no reason why fire services across the UK shouldn’t get in touch, and take advantage of this generous offer while it lasts.
COPTRZ offers a CAA-approved PfCO & Ofqual 4 accreditation course which can be completed almost entirely online. COPTRZ are offering the online Ground School completely free for emergency services personnel. Once you’ve completed your Ground School you can move on to the flight test which can be booked at one of 11 Training Locations around the UK.
COPTRZ also offers the Ofqual 5 Chief Pilot’s course, aimed at those in a Project Manager role who would be managing several drone operators. OFQUAL 5 offers greater clarity and benchmarking for organisations, a higher level of safety and potentially lower insurance costs.
For more information, go to www.coptrz.com/free-es-drone-training/