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The 400-Foot View - Installment 2: Integration of UAS Into Public Safety Actions

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By, Deputy Chief Riley Land

In the first installment of this series I wrote about the three ladder steps to successfully bring unmanned aerial systems into your agency and making them a work horse and force multiplier for your fellow public safety responders. The first step in the process is acceptance. If you have done your homework and have played the game well and achieved acceptance of unmanned aerial systems by your boss or your local government leaders, you are ready to begin the integration process. One definition of integration is, “behavior, as of an individual, that is in harmony with the environment”. In our case I take that to mean that the individual (e.g., UAS pilot or team) being in harmony with the rest of the responders in an emergency or disaster. Our goal is to become an integral part of the response system as they work to resolve the emergency or conduct an investigation, or to complete any other task that falls to the public safety disciplines within a jurisdiction or disaster area.

Local public safety response scenes can be relatively small or large enough to affect hundreds of people and several square miles. It can be an automobile accident fatality scene in which you may be asked to capture aerial photos of the intersection or accident scene. You may be called to an apartment fire to provide aerial imaging in real time to the incident commander as he or she deploys fire suppression resources to extinguish the fire; or, provide aerial photos after the fire to give to the fire investigators to assist with determining cause and origin. You may be summoned to a fixed facility or transportation accident involving hazardous chemicals or substances to read the placards to determine the chemical, or to assess the size and scope of the contaminated area. You may get a call to a barricaded subject scene, or a S.W.A.T. call out. The list is almost endless and I’m sure you can think of many more.

The commonality of all of these examples is that they all involve a primary responsible agency and usually more than one other department or agency in which all of the responders on the scene must work together to achieve a successful resolution. So for us, as UAS pilots or teams we must remember that we are not the show; we are just one of the monkeys. Achieving successful integration of UAS into our public safety response system will be a slow process. It will require that we listen to our fellow responders to find out what they really need from us; then, insuring we can safely provide this service without disrupting the normal, accepted and established work process. Freelancing or self dispatching to a scene can be the kiss of death for any local UAS program.

If you are working toward integration and the process is slow, I can provide some personal examples of how I attempted the process. I had been working with our UAS program for almost a year and had never really been called to a scene to assist. I began to feel a little down and was thinking that the program had been “back bayed” and would never reach its full potential. The day after a fairly large apartment fire in my city I asked the Assistant Fire Chief if I could go out to the scene and take some aerial photos of the fire damage for practice. I captured aerial photos from 400’ to show the entire building complex and then dropped altitude and took photo sets from 200’, 100’ and even lower ensuring that I documented the entire building carefully including the fire damaged areas. I returned to the office and copied the photos over to a flash drive and took them to the fire investigator to see if they would be useful. The 4K images also allowed the investigators to “zoom in” on areas of interest. They were very well received; and, I was told that they often take photos of fire damage from the ground aerial ladder platform but it only extended to a little over 100 feet. My photos were snapped up and included in the fire investigation case file. I have since been called to two more large fire scenes to provide fire investigation photos.

The quickest way to get a call out is for those involved to know that you have a useful product, and that you won’t get to the scene and disrupt their work. Fair warning: if you are the lone licensed pilot in your jurisdiction or the only pilot approved and trained to fly, you may have to rethink Margarita night or imbibe soft drinks while you are grilling out. The calls could come fairly regularly and at the oddest of hours. Reach out to other competent individuals that may want to be a part of your pilot team.

Work with all of your public safety departments to participate in their normal training, drills and exercises to best determine what your role could be and how best to accomplish your mission without disrupting theirs. These practice drills and exercises also provide a great opportunity to keep your systems and skills in tip-top working order; and, to build up needed flight time. Contact your local Emergency Management Agency and ask to be included in the planning process of the next drill or exercise in you jurisdiction. If you are lucky enough to be on good terms with the Agency, you can purposefully build a UAS component into the exercise. You may conduct it in the form of an experiment where you state your UAS objectives in the planning document and include your findings (both good and bad) in the final after-action report.

The best time to try new equipment or procedures is in the safe environment of drills and exercises. Remember to train like you fight and you will fight like you train. Failing in a drill is a learning experience; failing in a real response is front page news. By being a contributing part of the planning process and demonstrating that you are willing to conduct your operations in a responsible and meaningful way your program will begin to build real credibility among your peers.

Most, if not all public safety personnel have completed the basic National Incident Management System courses. They are familiar with the Incident Command System. If you are employed by a public safety agency, you have probably survived this training ordeal. the bare minimum courses that every UAS pilot or UAS team should have checked off before arriving on an emergency scene include: ICS-100.b Introduction To Incident Command System; ICS-200.b ICS For Single Resources and Initial Action Incidents; ICS-700.a National Incident Management System (NIMS) - An Introduction; ICS-800.b National Response Framework - An Introduction. These courses can be accessed and taken online. They should not pose a significant hurdle to other pilots/pilot teams if you decide to make this an in-house requirement for future development. These courses provide a good understanding of how public safety emergency response is structured and will bolster the credibility of your pilots and pilot teams. They also provide a better understanding of how a particular course fits into the big picture.

The idea of integration of UAS into the public safety response is not making sure your equipment is compatible with the Agency’s or whether your system has the latest technological upgrades. Integration means understanding what the Agency’s mission is - and the Agency understands your mission. Emergency Response Systems need to complement each other’s mission tasks on the scene. This ensures an expedient and safe resolution of the emergency. Naturally, we focus on our local integration issues, and surely we must. But, I can proudly announce that there are efforts ongoing at this moment at the state and federal level to assist us with our daunting task of integration of UAS into public safety.

In the next installment I will report back on a very exciting three and a half day symposium being conducted at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center at the end of August 2017. The FAA is partnering with the training center and the Georgia UAS Working Group to develop a “best practices” document that meets FAA regulatory requirements. This document will also provide a framework for UAS teams to respond to major emergencies and disasters in a safe, regulated manner. We hope to leverage the capabilities and availability of Part 107 pilots, both individuals and for profit companies that can be called upon to assist public safety agencies. It must be noted, public safety UAS programs are still of an insufficient number to handle major disasters such as hurricanes or other large scale events. This symposium will bring a limited number of these entities together for briefings and education; then, we will conduct five, full-scale exercise scenarios at the Georgia training center complex to test our ability to work together. The symposium will include a day-long, after-action session to discuss what worked and what didn’t. I have submitted a fourteen page document to the FAA summarizing the ideas developed in our planning meetings as a starting point; and, I hope we can building on it, or at least, use it as a discussion prompter during the symposium. Once the best practices document is finalized, our FAA representative hopes to use this as a working document that can be disseminated throughout the system for fine tuning, acceptance and adoption. Once approved, I will present the final document to our readers.

Remember, this is a long and slow process of integrating a new technology into a very old and established system. When self-contained breathing apparatus first came out the firemen hated them. “You can’t fight a fire wearing a mask and an air tank!” Cops got their calls from “call boxes” placed throughout the city long before the new fangled radios came out. Airplanes were once a novelty and were just a source of great entertainment at fairs and festivals. “If God had wanted man to fly he would have created the FAA!” In other words, Don’t give up. You are a part of an emerging wave of innovation that is growing exponentially every day. Engineers are working on completely autonomous UA systems to accomplish missions without human intervention. The FAA is allowing select entities to experiment with BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) UAS operations. Companies and academics are improving sensor systems for UAS, giving the ability to see and sense things not seen before. And finally, partner agencies are experimenting and developing traffic management systems for UAS with the goal of completely integrating them into the national airspace. It may not be the space program, but it’s pretty darn close. Dang, I just wish I was younger!

Columbus Georgia Office of Homeland Security
Deputy Chief Riley Land is the Deputy Director, Emergency Management/Homeland Security for the Columbus, Georgia Fire and Emergency Medical Services. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business from Columbus College and has been employed with the Columbus Consolidated Government since 1992. He is a Certified Emergency Manager and is responsible for the emergency and disaster planning efforts for the city as well as the coordination of all city, state and federal resources that would respond to Columbus in the event of a major emergency or disaster. Other duties include the responsibility for planning and conducting training exercises for the City of Columbus. Deputy Chief Land has received specialized training in emergency management, trained with the F.B.I. and the Treasury Department in explosives post blast investigation, trained with the Department of Energy in radiological response to weapons of mass destruction incidents as well as training in response to chemical and biological weapons with the Department of Defense in the Federal Domestic Preparedness program. He currently holds an FAA license for UAS remote pilot. He purchased the city’s first UAS in September of 2015 and organized the Emergency Management/Homeland Security UAS program for the city. The programs aviation assets now include a DJI Phantom 3 Pro and a DJI Inspire with visible light camera and FLIR. Contact Deputy Chief

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