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Benefits of Drone Technology in Emergency Services

15 mins
Drone Blog
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One of the areas that has benefitted the most from UAV technology is that of Emergency Services. When we discuss Emergency Services, there are three primary services that can be called upon by the public.

They are the Police or Law Enforcement, Fire and Rescue, and EMS or Emergency Medical Services.

Beyond the big three, we have many specialized services we could look at as well, such as Emergency Management, Tactical Teams such as SWAT, Hazardous Materials Handlers, SAR (Search and Rescue), and many more.

These services are invaluable and really are the glue that keeps our society together. Each and every one of these services consists of some of the very best in our society, people willing to risk themselves to help others in their times of need.

So, thank you to all of the individuals that work in any of these fields. Know that you are appreciated!

When it comes to drones and their usefulness in these areas, we are all aware of how drones have had a major effect on Search and Rescue operations.

But that’s not the only area that has benefitted from drone technology.

Law Enforcement has been using drones not only to keep officers safe but to locate and monitor situations they may be involved in.

Firefighters use drones to check for people trapped in fires as well as to find hotspots that need to be addressed to make the area safe.

EMS has been using drones to get lifesaving equipment to those in need quickly, even though they themselves may not be able to get there as quickly themselves, either due to distance or terrain.

As our technology advances, so also the viability of drone technology has an impact on the way we do things.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these services and the benefits of drone use within them.

Search and Rescue #

As I pointed out above, one of the most recognized impacts drones have had on Emergency Services is that of Search and Rescue, or SAR.

Search and Rescue is a specialized subset of public safety operations and involves activities revolving around finding missing people.

Generally, these types of operations would fall under the purview of that area’s fire department in most localities.

You can also find privately funded SAR teams as well, usually consisting of all-volunteer, non-profit organizations. These can be found in every state and every country.

When it comes to SAR operations, there are two factors that play a large part in a search being successful.

One of these factors is time. In most SAR operations, time is against the searchers. Having the ability to deploy rapidly can be the difference between finding the lost individual safely or not.

Most missing people are missing due to something tragic occurring, from simply getting lost to suffering a major injury that limits their ability to save themselves.

When the call to deploy comes, those searchers are always fighting the clock.

With drones, they can deploy moments after getting to the search area, and the odds of success greatly increase.

Another factor that SAR searchers have is the terrain. Terrain that is difficult to traverse, such as mountainous areas and the like will slow the searchers down and limit their ability to cover an area thoroughly.

This is where drones can play a vital part in any SAR operations.

Drones are fast, being able to go above the difficult terrain that may slow ground-based operations down. Drones can provide Situational Awareness that search teams otherwise would not be able to access.

Drones can map the entire search area providing the searchers the ability to pinpoint likely areas a missing person may be trapped or hidden from view.

Drones today can Detect and Identify ground objects depending on the sensors it has equipped.

One of the most beneficial aspects of drones is Communication. A drone equipped with a loudspeaker can draw a missing person’s attention, alerting them that there is help on the way.

Search and Rescue example #

In my own area, drones have had a large impact on SAR operations.

For example, on March 28, 2021, during a deadly flash flood event that affected Middle Tennessee, a 911 call was received that a man kayaking on the Harpeth River in Franklin, TN. appeared to be in distress.

The kayak had capsized, and the man appeared to be in trouble. The Franklin Fire Department was deployed to rescue him.

Firefighter and Captain Clay Mackey and Paramedic Daniel Donegan, through the use of the department’s thermal-equipped drone, were able to locate the man in less than 15 minutes.

The man was found clinging to some trees and was surrounded by flood waters. He was unharmed, and due to that quick deployment by the Franklin Fire Department drone team, he was able to be located and safely recovered from the water.

This is just one example of drones working for the greater good by SAR teams in my area. Many more examples can be found worldwide.

Police/Law Enforcement #

Not as well known but just as useful is how police departments are employing drones.

Drones have been used for crowd monitoring at large events. Large gatherings such as concerts or protests have been known to see criminal activity, so departments have been using drones to monitor and identify such activity.

Here it is not just limited to large gatherings either. Drones have been used in the field to track a suspect on the run, to not only locate them but to monitor their movements as well.

This method allows the officers to know if the suspect is armed and permits them to plan out approaching such a subject with better situational awareness than they would have had otherwise.

While drone use is primarily meant to spot criminal behavior, it can also help someone who may be in need of emergency services.

Large crowds, for example, can mask an individual in distress because there are just so many people who aren’t always the most aware of what’s happening around them and may not notice someone in distress.

Drones can help point out someone that may be in need in such a crowd and allow for assistance to reach them.

Law Enforcement’s use of drones is a bit controversial, to say the least, as it is a technology that, unfortunately, can result in misuse.

It’s here, in law enforcement’s use of drones for surveillance purposes, where we would find most people’s issues.

More and more departments are using drones for surveillance, whether it is in the serving of a warrant or collecting data that may be used against someone who may be acting in an illegal way.

The general public’s concern generally lies in potential privacy violations.

As of this time, no state has any legislation to regulate drone use by police departments, although there are many states in the process of doing so.

Kind of like it was for the rest of us just a few years ago, Law Enforcement’s use of drones is in a sort of wild west scenario, with a better understanding of use to come, as well as more and better regulation.

Off on a tangent! #

Here I will be the first to admit that for every new use for a technology, there will be concerns that bad actors, as they are called, will misuse said technology.

The age-old argument saying that “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t need to worry” is faulty at best.

As someone who has been flying commercially for several years now, I understand the argument in relation to privacy and have been approached by people who were concerned that I was spying on them.

I have always opted to lead by education.

Most people have no idea what a drone is seeing or the detail it is able to pick up.

By simply explaining what I am doing and showing those individuals the screen and allowing them to see what it is the drone is seeing, they walk away with the knowledge that, one I wasn’t spying on them, and two that drones can be quite helpful in many cases.

A drone is like any other tool in a law enforcement officer’s toolbox.

I fully support the use of drones in most aspects; I am a drone pilot, after all. If the use of a drone is able to mitigate a bad situation and provide additional safety to those in the thick of it, I support it fully.

Here’s the crux of it, though, at least here in the States. We do have the expectation of privacy when we are not out in public.

This can be a problem, with the question being, where does that privacy begin and where does it end?

If you are conducting illegal activities in your backyard, let’s say, is there still the expectation of privacy even if your activities are in your own yard and not visible to the general public? That’s the double edge sword that we’re talking about here.

We have recently seen the use of drones for city ordinance violations, where a drone was used to see something that just would not be seen if it wasn’t for that unique perspective that a drone provides.

This, in my humble opinion, is a misuse of the technology, and, therefore, shouldn’t be allowed.

On the other hand, if a drone was used in a slightly different way and its use was based on information about a crime being committed, and I do mean a crime, not a simple ordinance violation – in that case, I would see no issue with the drone’s use.

Then there is the question as to if any of said drone footage would be inadmissible in a court of law. Not being a lawyer, I wouldn’t have an answer to that.

I just know that if a drone’s use helps an officer in any way to protect the public and themselves, then it should be used.

Ok, that’s it for my rant. Let’s move on.

Firefighting #

One of the most beneficial uses of drones to date besides SAR would be the use of drones by firefighters.

With a thermally equipped drone, a single firefighter can not only seek out trapped individuals within a fire, but they can also identify areas of concern, such as hotspots, and direct access to those areas.

This actually leads to putting out fires more quickly and also reduces the risk to those fighting such a blaze.

By using a drone in these situations, they can also identify structural issues that may put the crew members at risk and direct them around such hazards.

This type of use of a drone has come in handy not only for house fires but for large-scale building and forest fires as well.

It allows for the fire crews to see an overall picture of what they may be dealing with and how to best direct their firefighting measures, be it directing other water-bearing aircraft to the areas of most need or identifying any people that may be at risk or potentially at risk due the fire spreading in their direction.

Firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and if there is anything that can assist in making that very dangerous task easier, then we should be supporting that in every way possible.

Every time a firefighter goes to a fire, there is a huge potential for disaster. By using a drone, a firefighter can gain better situational awareness, and best deploy their assets where they can have the most benefit.

With further advancements coming in the next few years, we may even see drones designed with fire retardant or water-carrying abilities.

With that being the case, we may reach a point where we don’t need to ask these special men and women to risk themselves as much.

There will never come a time when they won’t be needed, but with the use of specialized equipment such as firefighting drones, we may be able to minimize their risk to some degree.

Firefighting example #

Here as our example, we have the first time the Los Angeles Fire Department deployed drones. It was December 14, 2017, while battling the Skirball fire in Bel-Air.

Captain Erik Scott said, “They provide real-time situational awareness from a birds-eye perspective to the incident commander so they can see what’s going on at their emergency and then change their tactics accordingly to mitigate the hazards.”

In this case, firefighters used two DJI Matrice 100 drones during the Skirball fire. One had a high-definition camera used to survey the burn area, and the other had an infrared camera to assess hot spots.

The Skirball fire, which was sparked by a cooking fire in a homeless encampment, destroyed six homes and burned more than 400 acres.

The Los Angeles City Council that summer voted to let the LAFD start seeking Federal Aviation Administration authorization to use drones, despite objections from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups concerned about privacy rights.

Scott said the drones “will not be used to monitor or provide surveillance for law enforcement purposes and that they will only be operated by trained, certified and licensed pilots. We’ve been very careful, slow and methodical about how we’re implementing this program,” he said.

In this example, the fire department almost didn’t have the use of this technology due to many in that area expressing concerns over privacy.

During the Skirball blaze, firefighters used drones to fly the perimeter of the burn area and to assess burned homes.

Scott said, “It is much cheaper to operate a drone than to pay for a helicopter and its crew and fuel while fighting wildfires. The department hopes to use drones to help search for missing hikers, assess hazardous materials incidents and provide an extra vantage point for swift-water rescues. By no means will these ever replace helicopters and those talented pilots that provide water drops, hoist rescues of injured hikers and pull people out of the Los Angeles River, but this is an excellent tool for the LAFD toolbox.”

The department’s first fleet of drones was purchased through private funding from the Los Angeles Fire Department Foundation, Scott said. “It cost nothing to the city.”

This example was chosen to show both sides of the story. That even though this technology proved to help in fighting the fire, it may have never been an option due to the fears of spying that had been expressed at the time.

I am glad to report that the LAFD has, since 2017, proven time and again the value of drone use in fighting a large array of fires and many other aspects that they have deployed their drones for. Keep up the good work.

Emergency Medical Services #

When we discuss Emergency Medical Services, we don’t have too many examples to work from just yet.

When the call comes for Emergency Medical Services, time is the most important factor, and having the ability to get on the scene quickly can very well make the difference between life and death.

This is where drones can have a major effect, as they can deploy and get to most locations more rapidly than the actual EMS technician may be able to.

Once again, terrain, traffic, and many other things can play into the rapidness of response. The earlier the response, the better the outcome. That’s just a fact.

We have seen in some situations where a drone was used to get lifesaving equipment to people in trouble, such as tourniquets for victims of a penetrating trauma, AEDs for victims of a sudden cardiac arrest, or epinephrine auto-injectors for life-threatening allergic reactions.

In these cases, the drone was able to get to the person in trouble quickly and efficiently while the ground EMT team was still trying to reach those people.

One of the biggest uses we’ve seen to date is after a major disaster, where drones are deployed to gain situational awareness so that those assets on the ground can be deployed in the most useful way.

Having that real-time overhead video surveillance feed from an aerial drone lets incident commanders see conditions on the ground over a large area as they are evolving.

This above-the-ground perspective allows for improved intelligence to make well-informed decisions regarding response and mitigation as well as directing resources.

It’s difficult to say where drones will go in the medical industry, as we’re still figuring that out. One of the potential uses is in transporting organs for transplant, another case where time is so important.

Drones have proven they can avoid most traffic on the ground, unlike a carrier service, which is the most typical way of transporting organs to date, with helicopters being used in some rare cases.

We have already seen drones delivering needed lifesaving medicine to places that would have taken longer to reach with more conventional means.

Where drones end up in this industry is anyone’s guess. What we do know is that when it comes to EMS and technology, they are always looking to the future and how it can be used to increase their response to any situation.

As drone technology advances, I am sure we will see it find its place in the realm of EMS.

Follow-up #

I know privacy is a huge concern for many people. Having these types of dedicated systems is not a threat to your privacy. If anything, it could very well be what saves your life in a time of great need.

Although I fully support the use of this technology, I do realize that the concerns mentioned are real, and there is a potential for misuse. Same as a car or truck that can be misused, or a firearm.

We as a society have to accept that the only thing we can really do is watch closely and if misuse happens, call it out when it does.

To deprive these amazing men and women of the use of such tools is not only foolhardy but also short-sighted.

The drone industry is ever evolving, and as such, there will, of course, be some growing pains.

As with any new technology, it’s better to go through the growing pains than it is to deny the potential these systems can have to help those in need.

Fly Safe, Fly Always, Always Fly Safe!


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