How many times have you been to call and wished you could just see the building and fire at another angle…that you could get a full perspective before getting in there? Or wouldn’t it be valuable if you could just see how effective your efforts to fight the fire are in real time, allowing you to adjust your approach as necessary? A manned aircraft and all the expense that it incurs are no longer required to achieve these benefits. An Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), also commonly referred to as a drone, can be a significant aid to emergency services.
Drone technology offers emergency services a promising opportunity to provide “eyes in the sky” for a fraction of the investment of a manned aircraft.
However promising there are also other factors to consider, including legal requirements and liability exposure, as well as proper insurance coverage to mitigate risk.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates drones in a similar way to manned aircraft. Fire department drones fall under the special category of “Public Aircraft” used for a “Governmental Function,” as defined by Title 49 USC 40102. Pilots are still required to be licensed through the FAA, passing a test to prove aeronautical knowledge and being vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration. The FAA provides more details about the process and materials to assist at Becoming a Pilot.
Your drone of choice also determines the legal requirements. Fire Departments should take care that the model selected is suited to the needs of an emergency situation, rather than models with solely recreational purposes. Features such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) asset tracking, thermal imaging and gas sensors, as well as live-stream cameras could be important elements to include.
Whether the drone needs to be registered with the FAA may also be a consideration. Registration was previously required but the May 19, 2017 decision in U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit regarding the small UAS registration program invalidated that requirement for certain model aircraft. In other words, depending upon the type of drone your department purchases, you may or may not need to register with the FAA. More details about which drones need registration can be found in section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act.
Departments also have the option of applying for a Certificate of Authorization (COA) with the FAA that will act as a blanket waiver to permit the department to self-certify pilots, among other benefits.
Bear in mind that it is a brave new world in drone technology and the legal requirements are constantly evolving. Keep up to date with the most recent legal requirements provided for UAS at the Federal Aviation Administration website.
And while it isn’t a legal requirement, making sure your department is fully trained in the effective use of this tool is just plain smart. There are a variety of trainers that specifically address the needs of emergency service personnel.
Once the legal requirements have been addressed, it is wise to consider the additional liability exposure for the department as a result of a UAS. For all the good that a drone could do in an emergency situation, there is also the potential for damage. Imagine the wireless connection between UAS and controller is severed or the equipment merely malfunctions, crashing into property or, in the worst case scenario, injuring a person in its descent.
Not only is liability an issue but the loss of a valuable piece of department property is also at stake. It’s important to make sure both property and liability insurance is up-to-date and reflects potential issues associated with a UAS.
Some policies automatically include drone coverage at no additional cost. Coverage includes repair or replacement, general and excess liability for drones that are owned, operated, rented or loaned to an emergency service organization.
If you are interested in learning more about how Fire Departments are using drone technology, check out this story on a department in Virginia.
If you want to look at your current policies to see whether the use of drones would be covered, we’re glad to sit down and review them with you.
Drones are not yet flying on every corner but they are increasingly accessible and it’s difficult to ignore the potential they have to help fire departments do their job more successfully. The future may just be in getting some “eyes in the sky.”