How Firefighters are Using Drones to Save Lives

Utilizing drone technology for disaster planning and damage assessment

Tue Mar 17 2020 00:00:00 GMT+0000 (Coordinated Universal Time)

The United States’ fire season is, on average, 78 days longer than it was in 1970, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And this pattern shows no signs of slowing down. As a direct result, firefighters have to be more prepared than ever to combat this acceleration. 

Recently, utilizing drones has been a rising trend within the firefighting and disaster relief industries. Drone data is instrumental when locating the epicenter of the fire, planning out the best course of action, and monitoring dangerous situations from above. Post-fire, drones are used to assess the gravity of damage, find survivors, and determine if a structure is safe to enter. These services significantly improve safety for everyone involved on-site and assist with future training.

Pre-Fire Assistance

Before a fire even starts, drone technology can map hazardous surfaces and find potential threats. Having a complete, 3D map of at-risk expanses allows firefighters to understand the terrain before they enter. These maps and models enable them to make educated decisions about the best course of action. Evacuation routes can be planned and practiced, and preventative measures can be identified and taken - like removing excess vegetation or performing controlled burns.

Fighting Fire in Real-Time

After a fire has already begun, emergency services have a given containment window and limited time to stop the burn before it gets out of hand. Drone technology can be instrumental in this process by discovering “hot spots” and allocating water to the worst areas. The LAFD used this technique during the Skirball fire, and the 360-degree assessment captured by drones enabled them to adjust their attack strategy.

DroneDeploy’s Live Map, for example, turns drones into a scouting tool for fire departments. When smoke is too thick to permit helicopter flight, drones can survey the landscape and deliver valuable information to decision-makers on the ground. With 24% of firefighting deaths related to plane and helicopter crashes, this significantly removes the risk involved in these operations, captures the same imagery, and can save millions of dollars in losses.

The advantageous viewpoint that drone flight provides is also beneficial for monitoring the crew on-scene and locating survivors. Especially during night flights, infrared technology like DroneDeploy’s Thermal Live Map can illuminate the area and spot people and structures at-risk while simultaneously providing weather data to pilots on the ground. This information, such as wind direction and speed, can be used to evaluate progress and determine where the fire will spread next.

Photo Credit: Newsweek

Post-Fire Analysis

Once contained, the disaster relief efforts begin. For instance, if a building has been affected by a fire, a drone can enter to evaluate the structural integrity of the property without putting first responder’s lives at risk. This method was used in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Footage captured by drones can establish proper procedures and can act as training resources for future recruits.

The Future of Firefighting

Currently, 300-400 police and fire departments across the U.S. are using drone technology, with an estimated $881 million spent globally. Experts anticipate this number to increase year over year as drone technology evolves to fit firefighter’s needs.

Today, there are numerous drones in development to cut out the human capital, spray fire retardant, and drop water. While we might not have reached that point yet, DroneDeploy can still assist your disaster relief organization by improving procedure efficiencies and transmitting real-time data across teams.

If you’re interested in using DroneDeploy software, contact us, or start a free trial.


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