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Incident Command and Control in the Age of the UAV

Author: Randall D. Larson, Editor 9-1-1 Magazine

Date: 2015-07-27
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The Problem of Drones in Operation Over Emergency Operations

Recent online blogs including this one by Gerald Brown, crisis communications columnist for Emergency Management, are showing how public safety administrators, incident commanders, forestry pilots, and boots-on-the-ground firefighters  are evaluating the benefits and dangers of drones (more properly: UAVs - unmanned aerial vehicles, or arguably better: UAS – unmanned aerial systems) as they impact emergency response and incident management. 

We’ve all seen the amazing, high-def drone videos that have been posted online, whether they have been spectacular images of incredible landscapes and scenery, or remarkable perspectives of cityscapes and more.  But as UAV hobbyists seek to use their drones to capture unique aerial perspectives of emergency responses, we’ve seen how they are interfering with incident management and emergency mitigation and putting responders at risk.  A popular video posted to youtube and shared on several news sites shows a privately-operated drone filming a house fire in Montgomery, New York, initially keeping a healthy distance but then coming close enough to interfere with fire extinguishment operations, prompting firefighters to blast the UAV with a jet of water from a carefully aimed fire hose (see this online report for arguments pro and con of the fire fighters' response to the pesky drone).

Last June, firefighting aircraft were grounded in California's San Bernardino County due to the presence of a drone interfering with firefighting operations. Another delayed efforts to extinguish a brush fire in Los Angeles's Mill Creek Canyon on July 12. 

Even more significantly, the preponderance of UAVs in the skies over southern California’s North Fire on July 17th – the so-called “carmageddon” fire that burned almost two dozen vehicles trapped on Interstate 15 when a wildfire jumped the freeway - hampering firefighting efforts to contain the wildfire. Fire spokespersons reported that five drones were seen over the fire, and two of them actually gave chase to firefighting aircraft which had to jettison their loads and land.

Because the drones pose a hazard to the planes, incident managers decreed the airspace closed to fixed-wing aircraft if drones are seen in the air. “It can kill our firefighters in the air,” John Miller of U.S. Forest Service said in an article posted online at NBClosangeles. “They can strike one of these things and one of our aircraft could go down, killing the firefighters in the air. This is serious to us… not only to our firefighters in the air, but when we look at the vehicles that were overrun by fire, it was definitely a life-safety threat to the motorists on Interstate 15.”

The concern about the use of drones by videographer hobbyists prompted the US Forest Service back in June to produce a public education poster with the slogan “If you fly, we can’t” and has attracted the attention of the FAA in establishing efforts to limit where drones can and can’t fly. Thus far the concern about interference from privately-owned UAVs has been raised by the fire service, but one can imagine how a buzzing drone flying about the scene of a law enforcement emergency such as a hostage situation, active shooter, or other critical incident could detrimentally impact the safety of officers and public alike.

Emergency responders have the ability to establish no-fly zones around emergency incidents, whether it’s a house fire in New York or an escalating wildfire in California. But when those zones are established, getting the word out to local UAV hobbyists may be difficult, and when drones make incursions into the no-fly zones, the most prudent course of action just may to safely remove them from the arena of operations by direct action.

In response to the problems drones caused to the North Fire and other recent aerial incursions over emergency operations airspace, a Southern California lawmaker co-introduced legislation that would allow first-responders to disable or damage drones that interfere with emergency operations. “Drone operators are risking lives when they fly over an emergency situation,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, according to an online CBS report. “Just because you have access to an expensive toy that can fly in a dangerous area that doesn’t mean you should do it.”

Senate Bill 168, introduced by Gatto and Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado, would grant “immunity to any emergency responder who damages an unmanned aircraft in the course of firefighting, air ambulance, or search-and-rescue operations.   “We have ever-emerging technologies that can disrupt and disable a nuisance drone,” Gatto added. “Our emergency response personnel shouldn’t be at risk when coming to the aid of our communities.”

Below: Aeryon Scout Micro-UAV

Columnist Gerald Baron wisely finds some middle ground in the issue of drones.  “Clearly drones flying in the same zone as firefighting aircraft is not a good idea,” he writes. “The last thing we need to see is a crash caused by irresponsible drone operation.”  But he also feels it is in the best interest of public safety “to find ways to effectively manage the collaboration with the resources, skills, technology and passion that non-professionals can bring us, especially when the event is massive and overwhelming. Drones are part of that.”

Of the proposed California legislation, Brown feels it is a good thing - adding, “Still, I worry about overkill. About reducing the value of drones to assist by hyping the dangers. Not saying that is what is happening here. Only saying that there is a risk of that in legislative response to these issues. I think there is a gut-level response of a lot of emergency managers that this is our emergency, and nobody should interfere or get involved without our direction.” 

A colleague I respect who’s a veteran emergency telecommunications specialist, agrees with this notion. “Except for those non-fly conditions, UAVs can be very effective for situation awareness, guiding crews to areas they cannot clearly see themselves, and cover a lot of ground fast for Search & Rescue,” he wrote to me.

Recognizing this value, some police departments have already begun equipping their critical incident operations tool kits with drones, with clearly established procedures governing how these aerial vehicles are to be used.

Below: Schiebel Camcopter S-100 UAS

My own feeling is that there can be a lot that UAVs can bring to the incident management toolbox, if managed within the incident.  To be most effectively used to support emergency operations, UAVs need to be controlled by the Incident Command Post, their purpose understood by incident commanders, subordinate staff, and operated within an incident action plan.  Whether this means that volunteers – perhaps aligning drone operators with amateur radio specialists like ARES and RACES personnel who already provide invaluable voluntary communications support to disasters and major incidents, or establishing specific certifications and qualifications for drone operators within the fire or emergency management structure at a regional or state level, and assigning qualified and certified UAV operators to an incident’s Air Operations Branch, with a technical specialist managing and coordinating their use and thus bringing the value of these drones within the incident command structure itself. 

Uncontrolled usage of UAVs by unaffiliated hobbyists seeking aerial photography for personal gain need to be strictly controlled and kept out of emergency incident airspace; but launching UAVs within an incident’s own tactical plan, in concert with or coordinated between the activities of helicopters and air tankers and monitored by the incident's own communications unit, would provide an outstanding platform for rapid-response situation status and intelligence reports, transmitting their video direct to the incident command post.

Incident management has grown over the 40 years since the Incident Command System was created, recognizing how mutual agencies and private specialists can be of intrinsic value to the mitigation of most types of large-scale emergencies.

“To say only official drones can help will be to miss important opportunities,” concluded Baron. “But, reasonable and prudent methods need to be employed to make certain drones help, and not hurt the response.”

[Update 7/29: A brand new story illustrates just this kind of operation. It wasn't a drone-type UAV, but a larger remotely-piloted military aircraft, requested by a local Sheriff's Dept from the California National Guard to help search a national forest for a missing person. Read the story: ]

Some Relevant links:



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