Robots to the Rescue


Drones may have been marketed as toys, but they have quickly developed into important tools, especially for emergency responders. They have been successfully used by firefighters to save lives in emergency situations. Drones can provide new perspectives, travel where boots cannot and some even have the ability to see in harsh conditions. Overall, drones can reduce the risk of human life, significantly.

The benefits of using drones start long before an emergency arises. Traditionally, a fire department employee would survey a building with a measuring wheel, take photos and record founded information and data which could take several man hours to complete. By using technology, the time of surveying a building can be reduced to minutes allowing departments to reallocate resources. Janesville Fire Department in Wisconsin has identified 50 buildings that have a large footprint or high capita in which a fire could potentially result in a large loss. Should the Department respond to an emergency at these identified buildings, the data will provide crucial information to the boots on the ground. With some technology, the imagery of the data can be uploaded to monitors inside the fire engines including the building footprint, locations of power and gas shut-off’s as well as where the hydrants are located.

Having a drone on-hand upon arriving at a situation that is lifethreatening can be extremely beneficial. Drones provide the best look at the situation allowing a strategy to be developed, to evaluate and continue to monitor conditions. Possibly the most useful component of the drone is their thermal imaging abilities. They can identify the hottest and coolest areas of the building and can look through low visibility elements such as smoke, dust and fog which aids the firefighters to determine the best approach. Additionally, drones can be equipped with gear such as floodlights to greatly improve visibility during nighttime missions. It’s been reported that this technology allows the drone pilots to locate persons in total darkness, seeing further than night vision goggles and cameras.

After the situation has seized, drones can provide valuable postevent assessments. With drones capturing high-quality imaging, they can locate any survivors that may not have been visible from the ground, analyze the damage and use the recordings for re-evaluation and future training purposes.

While purchasing technology seems like a no-brainer for fire departments, many are facing strained budgets and dwindling resources. In 2014, the National Fire Protection Association reported there was an estimated total of 29,980 fire departments in the United States of which about two-thirds were staffed with volunteers only. Smaller agencies may have understood the benefits of drones but the price tag of purchasing the unit, its software and training a pilot was simply not in the budget. However, like most technology, as new models are developed, former models will give some budget-stricken entities a bigger bang for their buck as the price entry point for consumer drones has decreased. Many departments have obtained grants to purchase new technology and even been able to partner with nearby agencies to cut cost. Goldman Sachs has estimated the drone-related firefighter industry is upwards of $881 million.

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