No Caution Tape for the Sky

alt   Chris McLoone


There’s a guilded-age mansion located in the township next to mine that belonged to the Widener family.


It was built between 1898 and 1900 by P.A.B. Widener to house three generations of his family and what is now a priceless art collection under one roof. The greater than 30-acre tract has a second, smaller mansion; a gate house; and the 110-room monster, which has fallen into disrepair through the years as it has sat vacant with a sole caretaker trying to maintain the grounds. The owner finally put the complex up for sale recently for $20 million.

I’ve been fascinated by this house for many years, and when it went up for sale, I visited the realtor’s Web site hoping to get a glimpse of the inside through online images. There were only three exterior shots but also a video captured by a drone. I thought that was a pretty cool application for the drones that are now on the market, especially for a 34-acre tract of land to give potential buyers an idea of the scope of their purchase.

What the above example means, however, is that drones are becoming more accessible to civilians. Seen more as a toy probably than anything else, these units are probably not as sophisticated as the ones we have seen around the trade show circuit in recent years, but they are available, and citizens are using them for any number of reasons-some good and some probably not so good.

Regardless of the intent, we need to be aware that they are available to a much wider group of people than in the recent past and their use will impact our fireground operations. In recent years, we’ve had to adapt to the smartphone proliferation and how instantly people can share what’s happening anywhere at any time. It’s not so easy to put up yellow caution tape in the sky, however, to keep bystanders back behind the lines. Drone use is so new, it is hard to establish procedures. We were really just figuring out how to integrate their use into our own operations. Wildfires are a good application, as well as industrial fires. But, what happens when someone else wants to get a bird’s-eye view? There’s actually a case in point for that.

In California recently, a bystander using a drone to get a better view of a wildfire almost hampered firefighting efforts. Luckily, personnel spotted the unmanned aircraft and directed its owner to stop using it before it posed a danger to firefighting planes. Moving forward, we all must keep the potential for these aircraft in the back of our minds. It’s not hard to imagine a department using its drone at an industrial fire only to have a civilian-operated unit crash into it. We’re used to listening for helicopters. Now we need to keep our ears open for the sound of drones in the sky.

The California example isn’t the only one. A bystander used one in New York a few months ago after an explosion and fire until the police department told him to stop. There is also footage from a Detroit, Michigan, fire captured by a drone and available on Internet video services.

Do our jurisdictions have any ordinances regarding using these? We need to look into it. Controlling civilian use is one aspect, but we need to make sure we are not violating any local ordinances if we decide to purchase them to add to our firefighting arsenal. My guess is there aren’t many municipalities that have enacted anything. So, we are in uncharted waters. It used to be that we worried more about people on the ground with cell phones recording and instantly sharing incidents via social media or sending immediately to news outlets. It’s gotten almost comical in some respects as we wonder aloud why people are recording instead of helping. Now, however, we need to worry about footage captured by devices we can’t get near, operated by people we might not even be able to see.

Tread lightly if you encounter someone using a drone. We don’t want to negatively impact our own ability to integrate these devices into our operations. The last thing we want is to make a lot of noise about their use by civilians, only to have municipalities enact ordinances restricting their use altogether.

Start thinking about how to regulate these aircraft on your fireground now. Discuss how you want to approach the operators with the police department. Chances are that if law enforcement isn’t using them yet, it intends to. There are obvious applications for SWAT teams. The police department may already have procedures in place for what to do if civilian-operated drones end up at a police incident. If your department doesn’t have a drone yet but your local police department does, put a policy in place now to gain access to it if you need to.

Drones are great tools, and the group of people with access to them is increasing day by day. Plan now for how to deal with them.

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