Numerous international case studies have highlighted the innovative use of drones to aid the tackling of fires and searches for missing people. High-profile incidents such as the Notre Dame cathedral blaze, in which drones were used during the fire to direct efforts, show what’s possible if the technology is embraced.
Here in the UK, however, when it comes to the use of drones, there’s a risk that fire services could fall behind.
It is just over three years since a devastating fire broke out at the Grenfell residential tower block in London. Images of the burning building and the tragic loss of life will be etched into the British psyche for evermore.
Just a day after the fire, the UK Prime Minister announced a public inquiry and the world’s media quickly began to speculate, not only as to the cause of the fire but also to shine the spotlight on the best practices being followed by brigades nationally at the time.
The Grenfell Inquiry is yet to reach a formal verdict, but it has already highlighted several conclusions that can improve the response by fire services at similar incidents. At the request of the inquiry, the London Fire Brigade (LFB) published a 17-page report entitled ‘Actions since the Grenfell Tower Fire, 24 October 2018’, which demonstrated the steps it had taken to address public safety, along with further measures the brigade would take in its commitment to continuous improvement.
As part of that report, LFB specifically evaluated the use of drones during the operational response to the incident and highlighted that a drone belonging to Kent Fire & Rescue, used under the National Mutual Aid Agreement, provided support during the recovery phase. The drone was used extensively to help provide situational awareness, aiding assessment of the extent of the fire spread, the structural integrity of the building and confirmation of safe areas to inform the planning for the body recovery operation.
Previously these tasks would likely be carried out by helicopter provided by the police service, but as a result of steps taken to merge the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) aerial support service with the National Police Air Service (NPAS), this facility had fallen away, meaning that the LFB relied on the unmanned aerial support supplied by Kent FRS.
At the time of the fire, the LFB was in fact leading a review for the Home Office of drone use in the fire and rescue service as part of a ‘Blue Light Air Support’ programme. This review highlighted the benefits of drone technology in fire and rescue scenarios and, combined with the potential impact of MPS joining NPAS, led to the Brigade reviewing its position in relation to providing its own drone capability.
As part of a package of additional resources agreed post-Grenfell, as highlighted in the report, the London Fire Commissioner received £28,000 in funding for a dedicated drone trial and training of six firefighters to become drone operators. And, just a few weeks into a four-month trial which began prior to the report being prepared, a review stated that, ‘by providing an aerial view of an incident, drones help to inform the incident commander’s firefighting and operational tactics’ and are ‘able to access areas which are unsafe for Firefighters, which reduces risks and helps improve the Brigade’s response to incidents.’
Around the world, there are numerous cases of fires that have benefited from, or could have benefited from, the tactical and strategic use of drones. Just last year, during the blaze that tore through the historic French cathedral Notre Dame, Parisian firefighters used drone imagery to identify hotspots and track the progression of the fire, in order to plot the best positions from which to halt its spread.
In the United States, Chief Charles Werner (retired) leads the country’s DRONERESPONDERS programme, an organisation set up specifically to unite aerial first responders, emergency managers, and search and rescue specialists in order to train, test and develop as a collective to enhance drone operations for public safety. He suggests that the benefit of drones in an emergency situation is virtually limitless. In presentations, Charles will point to the potential of drones being used to identify fuel-loading areas; spot and highlight the existence and extent of hazardous materials; monitor sulphur dioxide levels in volcanic activity; examine train derailments and bridge collapses; identify the extent of tornado damage and more.
Yet the UK fire service’s use of drones is largely focused on situational awareness during firefighting and after the fire has been tackled. There are many well-known use cases for post-incident surveillance, whether to visually aid assessment of structural integrity, or through the use of thermal imaging to target hotspots and locate lost persons.
DRONERESPONDERS would acknowledge that there is a challenge around the public perception of drones, perhaps seen as tools of the state to aid surveillance and invade privacy.
It could, however, be argued that in the UK, a lack of ambition exists among senior decision-makers in UK fire services to fully commit to greater and more urgent use of drones in time-critical and life-saving scenarios.
It’s still seen as a new and emerging technology. While there is a keenness to conduct trials and a recognition that being able to see the seat of the fire is crucial, the outputs are not at the scale they could be, and in the mind of a financially stretched UK fire service commander, they just don’t outweigh the difficulties of adoption.
At a senior command and control level there is an interest to explore what might be possible, but it’s still embryonic in the UK. The problem may lie in bringing about recognition of the drone as simply another tool in the firefighter’s toolbox, much like breathing apparatus, and the added value these types of technologies bring. It’s tackling the fear of the unknown.
In spite of this, there is a growing body of worldwide evidence of the advantages and successful use of drones in a live fire situation, used for situational awareness by command and control units at all levels. In search and rescue the UK is making headway in universal application, and the advantages of using a drone to locate a missing person are obvious. But it’s about moving beyond the obvious and imagining the art of the possible. In a tower block for instance, thermal imagery sensors could be used, in conjunction with a rapid ascent to all floors, to give a 360° view of the building, allowing a view even through thick smoke. This information could be analysed in real-time and a 3D model automatically generated, identifying hotspots.
This visual assessment could be sent direct to portable electronic devices used by firefighters and their commanders en-route, on site or in operations centres, continuously updated as the situation changes, to better, more rapidly and more safely direct resources to the most critical areas of the building, as was the case at Notre Dame.
Traditionally in the UK a printed map is used, along with the physical presence of firefighters using aerial ladder platforms. There’s a lack of awareness of the possibilities, and a reluctance to move from the status quo – ‘That’s the way it’s always been done, so why change it?’ Isolated building fires have always been fought from the ground up, and I think to add the extra dimension of something flying may appear to add an unappreciated layer of complexity. Plus, it’s clearly not just about physically flying the aircraft, and the resourcing that goes with it in a dedicated operator, but also proper strategic planning of the ‘mission’, as well as collaborative training, maintaining currency, fleet maintenance and exercises.
While the UK has always had a great appreciation of its emergency services, there has rightly been a greater call for transparency over their actions and decisions in the last 15 to 20 years, with ever-increasing scrutiny and public accountability. Whilst the population has a greater understanding of the hostile environment in which emergency services often operate, the nation expects best practices to be learned and shared across its emergency responders. Coupled with the fact that the UK has one of the busiest and most crowded airspaces in the world and it’s no wonder there’s a hesitation to engage with perceived complexity and risk.
There is also the regulatory aspect around drone use itself, not to mention risk assessments and the training required of the individual(s) who will fly them.
When you factor in these perceived administrative burdens, not to mention associated expenditure, it is for all these reasons that decision-makers may shy away from attempting to overcome the barriers to adoption of drone technology – it’s all too complex, expensive and risky!
Is there another way?
I’m pleased to say there is. Drones are more commonly adopted in a commercial setting, and there is a real opportunity for the UK fire services to harness the technological capabilities offered, to enhance operations.
It’s one of the reasons why we created SOARIZON – a system that removes the administrative burden. SOARIZON was created out of a drive to empower any organisation to adopt and harness the potential of drone technology for them. Operating as a ‘Software as a Service’, the digital platform is underpinned by the global defence and security experts Thales.
We simplify and de-risk compliant, safe and effective Unmanned Aerial Systems operations. Where previously the processes required to enable successful and safe commercial drone operations, including mission planning, task allocation, data acquisition and data analysis, would take those overseeing missions anywhere up to 12 hours or more, SOARIZON provides digital decision making to support compliant flights within minutes, not hours.
Risk management, pre-flight checks, pilot resourcing, fleet management, airspace intelligence, and data capture and analysis are all rapidly completed in one place through SOARIZON.
Naturally, it comes down to a willingness to invest not just money but also effort and time, in embracing the spectrum of benefits that drones can bring.
While budgets are stretched and resources scarce, drone use can plug that gap. In our view, this should not be looked upon as an unnecessary expenditure or a luxury but as a way of offsetting risk and, ultimately, saving lives.
I would make a challenge: if money was no object and any internal politics were resolved, would you use drones tomorrow? If the answer is yes, then why not take the opportunity to lead from the front?
For more information, go to www.soarizon.io