Drones for Fire Service: How are fire services making use of UAVs?
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.
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.
We recently held a webinar ‘Exploring the DJI Matrice 300 for Police and Fire services’ with guest Perry Smith, technical support officer at Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service. If you missed it, you can catch up here:
We caught up with Perry after the webinar to further discuss how drones have transformed the operations of the Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service.
How long have you been working in the fire service for?
“I started in the fire service in 1996 in Salford Fire Rescue Service, and then I moved to Norfolk in 2005 to work at Norfolk Fire Rescue Service and started a job in technical services. We call it technical support. I was dealing with the technical side of things, such as risk assessing equipment and writing policy and procedures. A lot of what I do is introducing new equipment into the service and working alongside the training department.”
How long have you been using drones for?
“We started looking at drones in 2016. After much consideration, in 2018 we purchased the DJI Inspire, which we purchased from Coptrz. We trained the pilots through Greater Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service with a guy called Chris who was able to do drone training specifically for the fire service.”
How many people have you got flying drones?
“At the Wymondham station where the drone is based at the moment we have 6 pilots, plus me as an extra! We are now looking to train up some additional pilots at another station to increase our capability. So far, the introduction of drone technology within the fire service has been very successful, that is why we are wanting to increase our capabilities!”
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What is an example of a situation you have used drones in?
“Around 2 weeks after we had first started using drones, an elderly gentleman disappeared while walking through a field. He had taken a shortcut home across the marshes in North Norfolk, and his family realised he had gone missing and phoned the police. After a while, we were quite concerned because he had been missing for a long time. The police helicopter was deployed, and it couldn’t locate the man in the marsh.
“We work with the police, it is not just the fire service that is making use of the drone, we use it with the police too. They called us, and we came and put the drone up (one of our first deployments!), they were also flying drones too – so we were working together. The police suspected that the man would have been up to his chest in water, and if he wasn’t found quick, something fatal could have happened.
“The police drone spotted him in the water, but the drone battery was running low. Our drone then flew in the same place and the rescue team were deployed to get him out of the water. If we hadn’t been using drones, it would have been a much more lengthy process to do that kind of mission. The police helicopters have become overburdened with their thermal imaging cameras. This was a real success story just after we had gone live with the drones, and it instantly showed the impact this technology would have on the police and fire services.
“Over the last two years, we have proven that drones can be used for good in the fire service. I think when they first emerged, there wasn’t much information available about them, people were sceptical. The technology is progressing very quickly too, they are getting more powerful! Our original drone, which is a DJI Inspire has been retired and we are just waiting to take delivery of another drone. We have been looking at the M300 RTK, it would definitely do the job that we need!
“In the fire service, the drone needs to have a certain quality. Because we are so involved with different situations, the drone needs to have a 640 resolution thermal image camera, and a good quality optical zoom. When we located the gentleman in the marsh, it was so cold that the camera wasn’t showing that he was suffering from hypothermia. Thermal cameras are vital in our fire missions, because it shows us where the hottest part of the fire is, and it gives you the overview that you can’t see from the ground. You essentially have an eye in the sky.”
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.
We recently wrote a blog about the top thermal cameras for public safety, you can read that here.
Are people in the community aware that you are using drones?
“People are definitely aware, the gentleman being rescued in the marsh was a massive success story. The drone was responsible for saving his life. More people are definitely starting to understand what drones can do. We have to put signs out and wear high visibility clothing, so it is definitely not covert. Drones are becoming a lot more common to hear in the news, and more fire rescue services have now adopted them.”
Drones for Fire Service: What is next?
We have seen the use of drones in cases such as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but what is next for drones for fire services?
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. You can read our suggestions for the best drone mapping software here.
Meet your dedicated Industry Expert
If you want to find out more about drones for fire services, get in touch today. Our industry expert Sam Denniff is ready to get you started on transforming your public safety operations.
Sam is our in-house UAV expert for public safety within military, police, fire and search & rescue organisations. Sam has supported the supply of integrated drone solutions to some of the UK’s largest and most pioneering emergency service organisations including Devon & Cornwall Police, Ministry of Defence, Kent Fire and Rescue Service, Leicester Police and Air Accidents Investigation Branch.
It’s important that you adopt the right drone technology for your needs. Are you wanting a drone to assist your SAR operations? Are you in the military or police and require encrypted hardware? Do you need a drone that’s light-weight and quick to deploy or an airframe that can gather intel from hundreds of metres away? We’ll make sure you get the best possible solution for your need from the largest range of partners and suppliers.
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