As the holidays came and went, we spent some time with the Alachua County Fire Rescue (ACFR) reflecting on years past. Budget meetings are like the holidays because, often times, you don’t get exactly what you ask for. “I asked for a tanker. Instead, I got two nerds and a drone,” teased Larry Stewart, Assistant Chief of the ACFR. Those two nerds are Scott Fielding, Network Administrator, and Tim Davis, Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Coordinator.
All kidding aside, the ACFR UAV program started in 2014 when the department explored new technologies that they could bring to fire and rescue. The ACFR UAV team consists of eight pilots, including Stewart; Fielding; Davis; District Chief Joe Cox; and four Lieutenants: Alan Alligood, Robin Rivera, Jonathan Mallard, and Jacob Landauer. All of them studied for their FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Certification using Gleim Remote Pilot training materials. The team scored so well on the FAA knowledge tests that they like to boast about having a “90s club,” referring to their high test scores. ACFR even partners with Florida State University’s (FSU) Emergency Management & Homeland Security Program for additional training, testing, and support.
Initially, it can be hard to see the overlap here. Why do public safety officials across the country have an increasing interest in unmanned aerial vehicles? As it turns out, two UAV models, the DJI Inspire and DJI Phantom, have already found their niche in Alachua County’s public safety operations and proven themselves to be worth the investment. By using drones, fire departments are able to gather an unprecedented amount of information in a matter of seconds. Since these drones have about 25 minutes of flight time, it’s possible to leave them stationary in the sky to monitor emergency situations in real time.
Commanders at ACFR use this wealth of information to make decisions that previously were made using educated guesses. Now, it is much easier to know where to send crews and resources and how to better protect them from danger since commanders can see sites from different angles that are normally impossible to achieve during an active emergency.
Outside of emergency events, ACFR has used drones to support civilian events. In October 2017, ACFR teamed up with FSU to provide aerial situational awareness support for medical response during a function at the University of Florida. Other fire departments in Florida are finding uses for drones in beach rescues and hazardous material monitoring.
As useful as drones are, they are not without their limitations. Sometimes the DJI Inspire’s three mile range isn’t enough, especially when dealing with a widespread wildfire. That range is further limited by the FAA, which requires UAVs to be operated within the pilot’s line of sight. Like your smartphone, new updates are sometimes released with bugs that can cause features to stop working as intended. ACFR recently experienced a bug with one of their cameras that took three weeks to resolve.
Of course, cost is also a limiting factor. Many small and mid-sized fire departments are competing for the same grant dollars and overall there just aren’t enough grants available for UAV programs. With each DJI Inspire costing about $3,000 and insurance fees on top of that, administrators and budget officials are not exactly enthusiastic about buying a fleet of UAVs. With more specialized UAVs costing upwards of $30,000 each, it’s often determined that the funds would best be used elsewhere.
Even with those limitations, the Alachua County Fire Rescue has seen great success with their UAV program. They are now looking at ways to incorporate drone flight in their daily operations. The FAA has been very cooperative and helpful with completing the necessary paperwork in order to fly. The Gleim Remote Pilot test prep books and software were invaluable resources when preparing for the FAA knowledge tests. While it certainly wasn’t easy to get the UAV program up and running, ACFR wants to let their experiences and the lessons learned along the way serve as a guide and resource to other public safety departments looking to establish UAV programs of their own.
To contact ACFR, call (352) 384-3187 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet the Alachua County Fire Rescue UAV team, learn about using UAVs for public safety, find recommendations for flight safety, and see their UAV in action in the video below.
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