The shrill shrieking of a siren sounds. In a matter of minutes, firefighters are assembled and dispatched, equipped to brave the billows of spreading smoke. As the gravity of the situation presses down, the crew is emboldened by the aid of a new apparatus. With a battle cry akin to an angry swarm of bees, a quadcopter launches into action. It’s mission? Find the fire, fight the fire, and help rescue those in danger.
Only a couple of years ago, the scene that I described would be something found only in science fiction books. But thanks to the implementation of drones and developing payload technologies, fiction has become reality. According to a May report conducted by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, approximately 910 U.S state and local police, sheriff, fire, and emergency agencies have acquired drones for fire relief. Even the U.S. military has become engaged in the fight against wildfires, as the California Air National Guard is using a tactical MQ-9 Repear UAV to aid and assist firefighting efforts on the ground.
It wasn’t until August of 2013 that unmanned military aircraft were given the approval to assist civilian authorities. Until that time, military UAVs only flew stateside for training purposes. Brigadier General Dana Hessheimer, the commander of the Air National Guard’s 163rd Reconnaissance Wing, was sitting at his desk on August 25, 2013 when he got the call to send his unit’s MQ-9 Reaper into action.
Yosemite National Park was ablaze. Over 50,000 firefighters would be called in support of the extinguishing effort. Providing persistent overwatch of those brave men and women would require the best technology available. Once Hessheimer and his unit got the go-ahead to launch, the MQ-9 Reaper was on its way.
The commander seized this unique opportunity: “I was actually pretty excited that we might have the capability to actually support the firefighters. We knew that this was a chance to show the American people that this wasn’t just a killing machine, but this technology could actually be used for good.” (See the full documentary interview by Smithsonian here)
During their support mission, the 163rd Reconnaissance Wing would help locate and lead a firefighting team that had lost its communication capabilities away from the fire and back to safety. Today, military and commercial drones alike are used on a near daily basis to help support emergency response personnel around the clock. FEMA uses the invaluable imaging data gathered by drones to bolster their fire mitigation strategies. Live camera feed allows emergency response crews to make real-time informed decisions on how to best react to a fire’s unpredictable nature.
The Menlo Park Fire District is a prime example of an organization taking full advantage of drones’ capabilities. The agency has set up a dedicated drone command center and has developed a training program specifically teaching firefighters how to use drones during fire missions. During a live demonstration in Menlo Park, California, park fire station personnel showed a crowd of onlookers how a drone’s thermal imaging can detect people trapped in a burning building – insights that would be impossible to attain via the naked eye. Menlo Park Fires battalion chief, Tom Calvert, is a strong supporter of drone support during fires: “By having a drone, your sphere of awareness gets a lot bigger. Having UAVs out on these incidents is gonna be the new way we’re doing business. It has value you just can’t deny anymore.” (Read the full story here)
Drones are an undeniably essential tool in the fight against fires. With all of the wild fires that have devastated California over the past year, more and more fire response agencies will be looking to drones to further assist the firefighting mission. Agencies will also be on the lookout for experienced and qualified operators to ensure their drones are being utilized in a safe and efficient manner. If flying drones for the cause of firefighting support sounds like something you would enjoy, consider first if you’ve taken the appropriate measures to prepare yourself for such a role.
A Part 107 license will certainly be a minimum qualification. Beyond that, it would be prudent to undergo some form of drone skills training to prepare you for any advanced maneuvers that might be necessary during a fire mission. Consortiq offers courses such as Drone Flight Essentials and UAQEmergency6, the first being a basic drone skills course, the latter a course catered to drone use during emergency response. These courses combined would give you all the introductory skills necessary to ensure success out in the mission field.
As the drone industry begins its rapid expansion, those who have the most experience and training will be the first ones to be considered for crucial roles like firefighting operators. If you’re ready to take your drone career to the next level, a company that was recognized as #1 in Training and Education by the AUVSI "Xcellence" Award 2018 is here to help. The unique opportunity to fly drones for the betterment of society is primed for those who seize the moment. So, what are you waiting for? The fires are burning!