Drones: Change is in the Air

The FOX-C8-HD AltiGator OnyxStar drone. (Photo found on Wikimedia Commons courtesy of ZullyC3P.)


By P.J. Norwood

There has not been a time in my firefighting career where I haven’t picked up a book or a magazine, attended a class, or received information that some tool or concept wasn’t mentioned as “new.” The fire service—as well as everything else that makes this world go round—changes faster than most of us can actually keep up.

For example, let’s look at the word “drone”; we are all now aware that drones are being used by our military and defense for surveillance and other classified missions. Some drones are now being used privately, possibly negatively, in your local news. More recently, some fire department photographers or “buffs” have begun using drones to capture aerial photos and videos of fire scenes. Some departments that have quickly seen the value in this technology have purchased, trained, and begun to deploy drones on emergencies within their districts.

However, my initial apprehension and lack of acceptance of this technology quickly changed when I saw the Branford (CT) Fire Department (BFD) used it to manage an incident. Drones have endless uses on the emergency scene and within a nonemergency role when preplanning and training. Consider the usefulness of sending a drone up to accurately size up a hazardous material incident; managing of a local, large-scale, highly attended event such as road race or sporting event; or the ability to get an aerial view of incident operations on a large commercial building.


(1-3) Drones can be deployed to difficult-to-reach areas before responders to obtain a scene size-up so appropriate resources can be deployed. (Photos by Peter Sachs.)


(4) Drones can also be a valuable resource during prefire planning such as Branford (CT) High School.


Drone Q&A

I have consulted with some members of the local “drone community” and asked them the following questions that I and others have about drones and their use.

Q: What is a drone?

A: A drone is an unmanned craft capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere. Drones vary in type, such as fixed-wing or rotorcraft, and size.

Q: How do you operate a drone?

A: All drones are operated on the ground remotely by a pilot using radio controls. One frequency operates the craft and another transmits and receives the live video feed from the camera (if it is equipped with a camera).

Q: What distance and height can a drone travel?

A: A drone’s range varies, but the most popular drone, the DJI Phantom, has an approximate range of 2,000 feet. Depending on a variety of conditions and whether the drone has been modified, that range can be lesser or greater.

Q: Can a drone send back live video feeds and, if so, can it be sent or viewed with more than one device?

A: The video feed from the drone to the ground is live and, depending on the model, it is received on the ground using a dedicated monitor, a Smartphone, or a tablet. With additional equipment, it is possible for the live feed to be seen on more than one device.

Q: Can operate a drone at night?

Yes. Nearly all drones have colored light-emitting diodes that indicate the direction of travel as viewed by the pilot. However, obstacles cannot be seen easily, so flying at night might not be safe, possible, or practical. Moreover, drone cameras are dependent on available light, so night operations are generally not as useful as daylight operations. However, adding a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera, which is expensive but available, might make night operations more useful.

Q: Can a drone operate in inclement weather?

A: Flying a drone in mild inclement weather is possible in certain circumstances. Heavy rain or snow would prevent operation. High winds would also prevent operations by anyone other than a skilled pilot. Flying in very light rain is not recommended, but it can be done.

Q: What types of cameras are used or available?

A: Some drones come with proprietary cameras and some use GoPro cameras. Larger drones use standard digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. FLIR cameras use an imaging technology that senses infrared radiation with which some drones are also equipped.

Q: What are the limitations of drones?

A: There are flight duration limitations based on the craft, the motors, the props, the battery, the payload, and atmospheric conditions. The drone should also not be flown in close proximity to any large antennas or high-voltage power lines.

Q:What is the battery life of a drone?

A: The battery life depends on the size of battery used. The DJI Phantom has an advertised flight duration of 25 minutes. However, the flight duration with battery “reserves” is 15-20 minutes.


Drone Deployment

BFD’s Peter Sachs deployed his privately owned drone to assist the department at a quarry fire. Why a quarry fire? Sachs answered with the following:

“In mid-January 2014, I had demonstrated my drone to the Branford Fire Department, of which I am a volunteer member. I told the chief that if there were ever an instance where it would be too dangerous to send firefighters into the scene of an emergency, I would be happy to fly my drone in instead to help assess the situation. Much to my surprise, two weeks later that exact scenario would present itself.

A large blaze had broken out within the Stony Creek Quarry in close proximity to magazines of ANFO explosives. Because the quarry is essentially a large hole in the ground, there was no safe method to “peek” within it to see exactly how close the flames were to the explosives. An “eye in the sky” was needed.

CAP Here shows a still photograph captured when the drone was deployed for a quarry fire.

“[BFD] Chief Jack Ahern telephoned me immediately and asked me to come to the quarry with my drone for a fly over. On arrival, I launched my drone and flew it over the quarry, pointing its camera downward at the blaze. As the assistant chief looked at the monitor on my remote controller, which displays what the drone’s camera sees, he determined that the fire was burning at a safe enough distance from the explosives to send firefighters in to extinguish the fire.”

Below is the actual video of the quarry fire as seen from the drone.


An off-duty BFD Firefighter Keith Muratori, who is also a drone pilot and photographer, recently deployed his drone at a multiple alarm fire that destroyed a historic restaurant/pub in New Haven, Connecticut. Below is the drone video from that fire:



Drone use does not come without some debate and potential legal concerns. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) purports to ban the use of drones for any purpose other than pure hobby and recreation unless it has granted some authority to use one. Using a drone to assist with firefighting is not considered hobby or recreation. Therefore, according to the FAA, it is illegal for any fire service to use a drone for any purpose unless they first obtain a Certificate of Authority which, as of this writing, has never been issued to any fire service. However, the FAA has also never pursued any enforcement action against any fire department for using a drone.

The FAA’s stance on drones has received much criticism from the nation’s drone community. In August, Sachs, the founder of the Drone Pilots Association and one of the nation’s few drone attorneys, joined others affected by the FAA’s ban in Federal lawsuits against the FAA. Those suits challenge the legality of the FAA’s claimed authority over drones. It will take at least six months before those cases will be decided and, depending on the decision, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible.

I caution all departments that may consider purchasing a drone to seek opinion of their local town or city attorney before investing in equipment that may end up sitting on a shelf in an office.

Drone use will become widely accepted and practiced in the days and years ahead. However, the fire service, as it always does, will become the jacks of all trades, taking on greater responsibility and, often, fighting a different enemy with fewer personnel than ever before.

We must not become so technology-focused that we forget about the most important thing we have: our firefighters operating on the scene. As it is with all technology, when used properly, drones can enhance everything we do. When used properly, technology can have a positive impact on firefighter safety, fireground tactics, training, and many other operational scenarios in emergency and nonemergency tasks.

Below is a video of the BFD performing training for a firefighter I program: 

Author’s Note: Thanks to Peter Sachs and Steve Brunelle Jr., who greatly contributed to the content of this article.


P.J. NORWOOD is a deputy chief training officer for the East Haven (CT) Fire Department and has served four years with the Connecticut Army National Guard. Norwood has authored Dispatch, Handling the Mayday (Fire Engineering, 2012), coauthored Tactical Perspectives of Ventilation and Mayday DVDs (2011, 2012), and was a key contributor to the Tactical Perspectives DVD Series. Norwood is an FDIC instructor, Fire Engineering contributor, Fire Engineering University faculty member, and host of a Fire Engineering Blog Talk Radio show. He serves on the Underwriters Laboratories Technical Panel for the Study of Residential Attic Fire Mitigation Tactics and Exterior Fire Spread Hazards on Fire Fighter Safety. He has also lectured across the United States and overseas. He is certified to instructor II, officer III, and paramedic.


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