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Fast Fast Forward

When the going gets hot, the drones get going

Fire Prevention_drones in fire fighting

By , Loss Prevention Center of Excellence Leader
, Research

In January 2014, a fire broke out in Connecticut’s Stone Creek Quarry. Fire Chief Jack Ahern knew he had a complicated fire on his hands because the fire was near a storage unit full of explosives. He needed information about the fire and he needed it fast. But the chief hesitated. Normally, he could have used a media helicopter to see how the fire was behaving, but it was too dangerous to fly a helicopter over the fire. Should he send a firefighter in? One of his volunteer firemen offered him an alternative. The volunteer firefighter happened to have his drone, an A DJI Phantom, in his car. Chief Ahern said yes, let’s do it.

While the firefighter flew the drone up and over the fire, the chief was able to look at a live video feed of the fire. After looking at the video, he had enough information to determine where to send his firefighters and knew what direction the fire was heading. The fire was eventually put out and no lives were lost. When asked by a reporter if he would authorize the purchase of a drone for the fire department’s future use, Fire Chief Ahern said, “the fire department uses media helicopters to get a bird’s eye view, but a drone like the A DJI Phantom Drone, is much more cost effective.” The cost of the drone was $1200, which is “a drop in the bucket for what we saved in personnel by seeing what was going on in the fire.” 2/3

Fighting wildfires

Drones are also helping fight wildfires. California fire officials used a drone to help fight the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in August 2013. The drone was operated by the 163rd Wing of the California National Guard at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California. The drone was the size of a small Cessna and could remain over the burn zone for up to 22 hours at a time. This enabled the fire commanders to monitor fire activity, determine the fire’s direction and the extent of containment, and confirm new fires ignited by lightning or flying embers.

Previously, ground commanders relied on helicopters that needed to refuel ever two hours. Unmanned aircraft can map fires, but the Predator drone used in the Rim Fire flew one of the longest sustained missions by a drone in California, broadcasting information to firefighters in real time.



Annually, the number of US firefighter deaths at structure fires averages about 20 per year.


Futuristic industrial firefighting

The most futuristic use of drones in firefighting is occurring right now in Dubai. In January 2014, Dubai Civil Defense bought 15 quad-copters – remote-controlled drones - that would be used to patrol high-risk areas such as industrial zones to monitor and record fires. There are three main uses – one for patrol, another for supporting firefighting operations and a third to provide aerial shots for media activities. Each drone has a 45-minute battery life. To boost their effectiveness, patrol bikes have been equipped with special cases to carry the drones for easy deployment at the scene of a fire. The drones are being tested before they will be fully rolled out across the force, which is likely to happen this year, according to Col. Rashid Al Falasi of the Dubai Civil Defense.

In addition, Dubai is looking at a remote-controlled robot firefighter equipped with fire hoses to support the drones and fight fires in the near future. Naffco, a firefighting equipment manufacture, says that they have designed a robot firefighter called Knight Hawk, which has heat sensors and a navigation system. The Dutch developer Geoborn said that it is only a matter of time before Knight Hawk could become fully autonomous, with the ability to fight almost any kind of fire.

Folmer Kamminga, Geoborn’s managing director, said, “Most fire brigades, whether in Belgium, the Netherlands or the UK, do not allow their firefighters to enter a burning building. If a firefighter isn’t going to do that, then let a robot do it. Once there is a demand for this, it will revolutionize the industry.” Dubai is not yet ready to send in the robots. Col. Al Falasi said they would need to see more tests before determining whether the robot would be a worthwhile investment.

Closer to home, in September 2014, students at North Carolina State University successfully created drones capable of assisting firefighters. The drones were fitted with infrared sensors that could find people in a burning building, locate the origin of the fire and pinpoint impending dangers to firefighters.

On-duty firefighter deaths rose in 2013

Anything that could save firefighters lives has got to be good. After several years on a downswing, on-duty firefighter deaths were up in 2013. There were 1,240,000 fires reported in the US in 2013 according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). These fires resulted in 3,240 civilian deaths, 15,925 civilian injuries and $11.5 billion in property damage. Ninety-seven firefighter deaths occurred. Of the 97, the Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 wild land firefighters, the largest firefighter incident, other than the World Trade Center in 2001, since 1977. In addition, three incidents occurred in Texas. Two firefighters were killed in Bryan; 10 in West Texas, a fertilizer plant explosion and four in Houston.

Annually, the number of US firefighter deaths at structure fires averages about 20 per year. Most surprising is the fact that the rate of deaths due to traumatic injuries inside structures has been increasing. Almost all of these non-cardiac fatalities inside structure fires were the result of smoke inhalation (62.1 %), burns (19.1%) and crushing or internal trauma (16.5%).1 (NFPA Fire Analysis and Research, Quincy, MA.)

Is there a drone in your firefighting future?

Fire Chief Magazine’s product editor Mary Rose Roberts says, “Commercialization has brought more UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) to market – making technology more accessible to fire, EMS and emergency departments. These eyes-in-the-sky can be used across public safety services from transmitting birds-eye video of a forest fire to incident commanders mapping out hard-hit areas after a natural disaster.” 1

In the magazine’s March 2014 issue, Roberts reviewed five drone technologies that she thought were worth watching for fire and emergence response operations. “With continued commercialization, drones carrying video payloads will arm first responders and incident commanders with myriad ways to capture data at a fire, from CBRN dangers to wildfire spread, in order to better safeguard their community and emergency responders on the ground.”

Drones are an important new tool for firefighters. Besides the cost, they can fly where it’s too dangerous for humans, such as the Yosemite and Stone Creek Quarry. In Germany, they are experimenting with using smaller drones inside structural fires to determine where the fire is heading. Drones are also being used by EMS and firefighters for emergency situations, such as multiple accidents, gas or oil pipeline explosions. Drones can see places people can’t. Before drones, humans were put at greater risk. Now, there’s an option.

1Roberts, Mary Rose, “5 drone technologies for firefighting”, Fire Chief Magazine, March 2014.
2Raus, Amanda, “Drone Used to Help Firefighters Fight Dangerous Fire,” NBC Connecticut, January 31, 2014.
3Atherton, Kelsey D., “Connecticut Fire Department Gets Help From A Drone,” Popular Science, February 4, 2014.
4 Croucher, Martin, “Dubai turns to drones for firefighting,” The National, January 20, 2014.

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