You’re the fire chief and you’ve worked hard to get the purchase of a drone into the budget for your department. You and your team spent hours researching and developing a justification for the new equipment. (Notice I didn’t write “toy.” More on that, later) The budget item was approved and, after multiple delays due to supply chain issues, this cool new piece of technology has finally been delivered.
Just pull that thing out of the box and see what it can do, right? WRONG! Hopefully, part of your research process before buying the drone included reviewing drone operator requirements and developing a program, including a policy and procedure. If that wasn’t the case, don’t despair. There are a lot of resources available to help you develop a program that will keep your department compliant with various laws and regulations. So, where should you start?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates the use of drones in the airspace of the United States. The FAA’s website is a good place to start your research. After all, you don’t want to be operating a drone in a manner that fails to comply with federal regulations.
Now that you’ve done some research to ensure your fire department drone program will be compliant with federal mandates, it’s time to build your program. A great place to start is with a small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) policy. Remember, this is a highly specialized piece of equipment where its use and misuse can have lasting implications for the department. A new policy is warranted.
Fire Department Drone Policy
Your policy should include the criteria personnel must meet to operate the aircraft. Department leaders must ensure drone pilots take any training required by the FAA and are vetted by the Transportation Security Administration. The FAA’s minimum age for operating a public safety drone is 16. That means your group of whiz-kid Explorers are probably not the best choice for operating as drone pilots, no matter how skilled they are with a joystick and small screen.
Your sUAS policy should also include a list of situations and incidents where the use of the sUAS is permissible. When determining permissible usage, it’s important to remember the drone is just another tool in the department’s toolbox. Just like the use of a thermal imaging camera or a 2 ½-inch line with a smooth bore nozzle isn’t always the right tool for accomplishing the mission, the drone shouldn’t be deployed just because it’s available.
“Your fire department has invested in the power—now it’s time to show off responsible use of the new technology.”
Equally if not more important is to explicitly direct operators and Incident Commanders (ICs) on situations where the sUAS is prohibited from being deployed. This list may seem like common sense, but we have a lot of policies and procedures in the emergency services because common sense didn’t prevail and now a new rule needs to be spelled out for everyone. So directly prohibiting drone usage related to random surveillance, intimidation, personal use, observing people not related to the scene or training scenario or violating HIPAA rules is a smart move. Anyone who has ever written an incident report knows the saying, “If you didn’t write it, you didn’t do it.” The same holds true with your drone prohibitions. If they aren’t part of the policy, there’s always the poorly constructed argument of, “I didn’t know we couldn’t use the drone for (insert ridiculous idea here); it’s not in the policy.” People like to say it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, but a policy that requires permission from a supervisor before deploying a drone can help eliminate the need for forgiveness (or damage control).”
Now that pilots have been designated, there’s a policy in place, and everything is in compliance with the various federal and/or state standards for sUAS operation, you’re all set to get that thing in the air. Or are you? The answer is: Not quite. But you’re getting close.
Training Your Pilots
You’ve now reached the training phase. The obvious place to start is with the pilots. Just because Firefighter Smith has had a drone for years and flies it around her yard doesn’t mean Firefighter Smith is ready to fly the department’s new sUAS. Think of this in terms of operating fire apparatus. Even though a member has had a driver’s license and has driven a car for 10 years, we don’t let that person walk into the firehouse and jump into the driver’s seat of the engine without specialized training. The drone should be no different.
As the pilots are being trained, personnel who may find themselves in the role of IC need to be trained, too. As most fire service leaders know all too well, the buck stops at the top. If the drone is used inappropriately on a scene, there will be just as many questions for the IC as for the pilot. Your ICs don’t necessarily need to know all the ins and outs of flying the drone, but they must clearly understand the policy.
Educating Your Department
This brings us to the rest of the department. Policies and procedures are in place to help ensure operations are efficient, effective and as safe as possible. Unfortunately, fire departments often author a new policy, and it gets distributed without making the effort to ensure all members have at least a working knowledge and understanding of the policy.
We’re not talking about a policy concerning grocery shopping or when a T-shirt can be worn on duty. Those types of policies, while important for the members to understand, don’t have any legal implications for the department if they aren’t followed. The drone, on the other hand, carries significant legal and public image consequences if it is not operated correctly.
Therefore, all members of the department — from your Explorers to your leadership — need to be trained on your sUAS policy. This shouldn’t be one of those policies that get passed out during training and put in a binder, never to be seen again until it’s time to study for a promotional test or when it’s been subpoenaed as evidence in a civil rights lawsuit. This should be one of those policies that finds its way into the department’s annual training program.
A fire department drone can be worth its weight in gold in some scenarios. It is critical to remember that this piece of equipment is not a toy but a powerful tool. As fans of Spider-Man understand well, with great power, comes great responsibility. Your fire department has invested in the power—now it’s time to show off responsible use of the new technology.