Fire Department Drone Policies

Many fire departments are using drones to aid with fireground operations. Here’s how to develop drone policies for your department.

December 29, 2020

Article highlights
  • Using drones in the fire service.
  • FAA requirements and regulations.
  • Importance of developing a drone policy.

In January of 2019, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), released NFPA 2400 – Standard for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Used for Public Safety Operations.

These standards detail the minimum requirements for the safe operation, deployment, and implementation of unmanned aircraft, or drones, in the fire service.

This includes criteria departments should consider before implementing a drone program, professional qualifications for personnel, and elements of an effective maintenance program.

They are also an acknowledgment of the rising use of drones by fire departments across the country. More and more departments are using drones to monitor dangerous situations, aid with search and rescue, and assess scenes involving hazardous materials.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are certainly part of the future of public safety. Now is the time for your fire department to start thinking through how to implement a drone program.

Using Drones in the Fire Service

While drones come with their own set of risks and privacy issues, they can be immensely helpful in public safety.

Drones in the fire service are far quicker and more cost effective than helicopters or other methods of assessing a scene.

Departments are starting to use them to provide an overview of a fire and improve firefighter accountability on the scene. Some companies are even testing drones for firefighting, equipping the drone with water to extinguish fires that may be hard to reach.

Here are some of the ways departments are using drones in the fire service:

Rapid fireground assessment

In 2015, 24 firefighters died and more than 29,000 firefighters were injured on the scene responding to fires.

Some experts think drones could help reduce firefighter injuries and deaths by providing a complete picture of the fire and structure before firefighters enter the scene.

Fire service drones can help commanders quickly analyze the scene of fires or emergency events.

With cameras and thermal imaging technology, they can transmit footage and data straight to the command center as well as onboard computers and mobile devices.

Otto Drozd III, Chief of Orange County Fire Rescue, told the Orlando Sentinel that he hopes to use drones to identify the hottest areas of the fire to help inform the best strategy to fight the flames.

His department is preparing to use drones that employ technology such as infrared cameras and portable defibrillators.

“All of these take the firefighters out of harm’s way and put the drone in the position to give us the operational intelligence we need to get when we’re on scene,” Drozd said.

Search and rescue operations

Drones can quickly cover a lot of ground and reach areas that may be difficult for firefighters to get to.

They can even carry items such as water bottles, life jackets, or food packets. This can make them helpful for search and rescue missions.

It’s unclear exactly how many fire departments are currently using drones for search and rescue missions. But some departments are teaming up with citizen volunteers to use drones in emergency situations.

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Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources is using drones to find and help people who are lost or injured in the wilderness.

“You could be saving a life just by the minutes it's going to be saving an officer or their equipment to get to that certain area,” DNR spokesman Rod Clear told Marketplace.

Safely assess hazardous material incidents

Along with assessing the scene of a fire, drones in the fire service can also help firefighters locate and analyze hazardous materials before sending personnel to the scene.

The West Memphis Fire Department recently purchased a drone to help with hazmat incidents. The decision came after an incident where a truck spilled poisonous material.

The department had to call in extra personnel to address the issue. Department leaders estimated that using a drone would have saved them time, manpower, and about $1,000 in overtime costs.

“Where it took us an hour to make an entry, we could’ve done it in 10 minutes with less manpower and less risk to our guys," Assistant Chief Jeff Jones told a local news station.

Observation and assessment of training activities

Drones in the fire service can also help with firefighter training.

Drones can help commanders observe movements during training and get a different perspective.

Having a bird’s eye view of training activities can help fire departments improve training to make fireground operations more efficient.

Requirements and Regulations

Drones are a relatively new technology. So laws and regulations guiding drone use are constantly changing.

As you work to implement a drone program in your fire department, make sure you work with general counsel every step of the way to make sure you’re in compliance with federal and local laws.

FAA and state laws

First, make sure your department’s use of drones abides by the Federal Aviation Administration’s operational limitations.

Some key guidelines to note:

  • Your drone must weigh less than 55 lbs.
  • The drone must remain in the line of sight of the person operating it.
  • Drones may only be operated during daylight hours.
  • The drone pilot must not fly the drone higher than 400 feet above ground level.

You can find more information on the FAA’s drone page.

Many states have also adopted laws and resolutions guiding drone use.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of August 2017, 40 states had enacted laws addressing drones. You can check your state’s drone laws.

Pilot training and certification

A major part of implementing a drone program in the fire service is deciding who will operate the drone.

Drone pilots must pass an exam to get certified. The exam includes questions about drone regulations, operating requirements, and emergency procedures.

You can find more information and training about certification on the FAA website.

Importance of Developing Your Fire Department’s Drone Policy

In many places, civilians are wary of the use of drones in public safety.

Since many people still associate drones with military operations, drones can bring up concerns about privacy and security.

A fire service drone program cannot be successful without support and buy-in from the community.

In order to get that support, fire departments must be very clear about how they will use drones. That’s where drone policies and procedures come in.

Well-written policies and procedures will help your fire department get community buy-in by clearly establishing the scope and purpose of your drone program.

Drone policies will assist the program to operate effectively and increase accountability in drone use.

Here are some tips for crafting effective policy for drones in the fire service:

1. Understand your state and local laws

As outlined above, federal and state laws about drone use are still evolving.

As you craft your department’s drone policy, consult experts and legal counsel to make sure you codify all laws and regulations in department policy. This may include laws that cover privacy, trespass, and nuisance.

Your drone policy will guide your drone use, helping ensure that your drone use complies with relevant laws. Plus, including provisions to meet laws in your policies will help reduce liability risks.

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2. Define your purpose and stick to it

Before your fire department even buys a drone, you should get very specific about how you will and won’t use it.

The U.S Department of Homeland Security’s report on best practices for UAV programs encourages public safety agencies to clearly establish the purpose of such a program.

“Identify the challenge that prompted your agency to create an unmanned aircraft program and how unmanned aircraft systems will assist in addressing that challenge,” it advises.

Establishing the primary purpose of your program will inform what kind of drone technology and training you need.

Defining the scope of the program will prevent your agency from overstepping, and it will reduce liability since your policy can cover those specific scenarios.

3. Craft a detailed SOP/SOG

Once you’ve examined laws and defined the purpose of using drones in your department, it’s time to write the standard operating procedures for your drone program.

Make your SOP as clear and specific as possible. The SOP for drones in the fire service should spell out every aspect of operation, including, but not limited to:

  • Who is authorized to use the drone.
  • The processes are for requesting drone use (if required) or the circumstances in which the drone can be used.
  • Step by step procedures for operating the drone.
  • What logging or record keeping needs to occur.

The SOP is probably the most important piece of the policy. Taking the time to think through the different procedures is important.

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A policy management software such as PowerDMS can help you easily collaborate on crafting comprehensive SOPs.

PowerDMS also makes it easy for you to disseminate policies and training to every member of your department.

4. Plan for storage and access to data collected by your drone

Drones collect a lot of data. This data – whether in the form of videos, pictures, or other information – can bring up privacy concerns.

Your department’s drone policy should specify what information is going to be stored, for how long, and who has access to the files.

Most fire department drone use will happen on the scene of a fire or emergency incident.

Therefore, data captured by drones in the fire service may not be as litigious than that captured on law enforcement drones. But there are still privacy concerns about any government agency recording its citizens.

The Department of Homeland Security suggests creating a schedule to systematically destroy any picture or recordings that don’t relate to an ongoing case.

They suggest that “Data collected that does not pertain to an authorized purpose should not be retained beyond 180 days.”

5. Be transparent with your community

Don’t develop your fire department drone program behind closed doors. Your department should be up front with the community about intentions to purchase a drone, how it will be used, and what you’ll do with drone data.

As the DHS report points out:

“Public support is essential for an unmanned aircraft program’s success. A program that is not transparent according to applicable laws, agency policies, and best practices may quickly lose support and create misperceptions about the program’s intended mission(s).”

Your department may even consider developing a drone program in partnership with other public safety agencies, such as the police department, property appraiser, or city planner.

Sharing drones across agencies is not only a good way to share the costs, but it also makes a stronger case to the public about how a public safety drone program benefits them.

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Drones in the fire service can be a tremendous asset for your department.

As you work to implement a drone program, make sure to use a policy management software tool to craft effective policies, train your staff, and store relevant data and information.

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