First Responders & UAS: A Safe, Cost-Effective Solution

First responders are the primary line of defense in protecting a country’s citizens around the world.

Challenges faced by these frontline professionals include everything from small house fires and minor personal injuries to multi-national natural disasters. Millions of people and billions of dollars are required to provide first responder services each year.

The International Forum to Advance First Responder Innovation, a group sponsored by the US Department of Homeland Security, studies the activities of the first responder community. The Forum is comprised of sixteen countries from around the world, and estimates their collective first responder strength to exceed 7.4 million people. Overall, operations for the member nations cost over $432 billion annually.

Finding ways to increase the effectiveness of these organizations while lowering costs is a daunting task for planners. In the last few years, an increasing number of agencies have looked towards UAS technology as one of the most promising solutions to this dilemma.  

Typical First Responder UAS Uses

The versatility of drones allows for greater flexibility in supporting first responder operations. Some of the earliest adopters of the technology were firefighters and law enforcement agencies.

Firefighters found drones with thermal cameras to be among the most beneficial for their needs. While resolution and frame rates vary from system to system, most thermal cameras can pinpoint hotspots in a fire with relative ease.  

Law enforcement utilizes various UAV payloads to monitor traffic, track criminals,  locate a missing person, and collect information for further investigation and prosecution.

For agencies with small budgets, UAS offers the capability to get eyes on the ground quickly over criminal acts, terrorism events, and armed incidents with minimal risk to people, and at a fraction of the cost of a manned aircraft.

Drones also offer the same, if not better, information. And. they have the ability to stream live images to control rooms, which provides situational awareness to commanders and controllers.

A quick internet search will bring up many examples of how drones assisted first responders in saving lives around the world.

Advantages

UAVs present three primary advantages to the first responder community: Safety, cost-effectiveness, and improved performance.  

Safety

Dangerous situations are commonplace in the first responder community. Any tool capable of minimizing the risk to human life is worth investigating.

Provide situational awareness and deploy crews, as required, to support the safe resolution of an incident using real-time thermal and color images.

Placing a drone in harm’s way is ideal for situations such as fires, HAZMAT, and active shooters. The data they provide is more accurate, and it helps to mitigate the chance of emergency service personnel from becoming additional casualties.

It’s not difficult to imagine a future where drones take on most risky situations in first responder operations.

Cost

It’s only been in the last five years or so that drones have become commonplace, even though the technology has been used in first response for well over a decade. 

Before this period, aerial data collection for first responders could only be achieved through expensive assets, such as a helicopter. While helicopters can cover one square mile in approximately 12 minutes — compared to about 454 man hours for the same area for officers on foot — they can cost over $2,000 per hour to operate. Most departments are unable to afford such resources.

The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that less than 1% of public service agencies can afford aviation resources. As a result, only the largest, most well-funded organizations have access to these platforms.

Fortunately, drones are unlike many new technologies, in that their implementation into existing operations is typically not cost-prohibitive. While some UAS cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, many effective drone models are very affordable, even for smaller organizations with limited resources.  

Performance

With the development of a sustainable drone program, along with proper training, first responders often see a marked improvement in capabilities and effectiveness almost immediately. 

Law enforcement agencies across the world are lowering response times and improving situational awareness by way of UAS. Model programs, such as the Chula Vista Police UAS Drone Program in southern California, have identified many improved efficiencies through drone implementation.

The department’s “drones-as-a-first-responder” initiative has lead to the UAS often arriving on-site well before any uniformed officers are in the area. UAS video feeds are shared with patrol cars, command centers, and other agencies involved. The Chula Vista Police force has even used its drones for search & rescue, building clearing, and forensic documentation. 

Bringing It All Together

The dedicated and courageous professionals that protect us in our time of need deserve the absolute best tools for their work.

Drones are among the most exciting innovations to come along in recent years. Given the versatility of the platform, and their many inherent advantages, all first responder organizations should consider implementing drones into their operations.

Bryce Allcorn, Consortiq’s head of global operations, spent 15 years as a firefighter in the United Kingdom. In that time, he utilized UAS frequently.

“UAS technology doesn’t replace first responders,” Allcorn said.

“But, if used properly, the tactical decisions this form of situational awareness supports really does help create safer and more efficient resolution of serious incidents. For firefighter crews and police officers, having a small UAS with suitable, useful sensors that is quick to deploy, operated by individuals that understand the data/information requirement, has made huge differences to incidents across the world.”

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David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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