Fighting fires with the help of drones
The tragic fire that threatened to completely destroy Paris’s Notre Dame cathedral in April this year was a stark reminder of the immense dangers that firefighters face, and the unique, complex set of challenges that each fire presents.
But in their efforts to understand and track the fire’s progression, Paris firefighters used a technology being harnessed increasingly by emergency services to provide real-time intelligence to support decision-making: drones. With centuries of heritage at stake in a rapidly escalating fire, firefighters deployed drones to track the fire’s progress.
This gave the fire service a fresh perspective on the situation, which provided them with vital insight, enabling them to aim their hoses in the right places and deploy their own capabilities in the optimal way to minimise damage.
Drone use is now well-established worldwide. There is widespread recreational use of the technology and it is increasingly part of everyday life with innovative retailers like Amazon taking steps to use the technology in parcel delivery.
Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are also widely used by the military to support surveillance and offensive operations and have even begun to assist in humanitarian aid projects by delivering aid in rural areas of affected countries, such as Ghana.
When harnessed for positive means, the technology can be a vital tool that provides firefighters with a more complete understanding of the cause and spread of large fires. In the extreme environments and pressured situations that fire services operate in, UAVs can be crucial in identifying risks to present a more complete picture for decision-makers in firefighting operations.
Quick and accurate response
When integrated within a wider surveillance system, a drone’s position metres up in the air can give it a ‘third eye’ view. In the case of the Notre Dame fire, this enhanced the effectiveness of the crew’s response on the ground by providing a view of the fire that would otherwise have been impossible to obtain.
The use of drone technology can be extremely beneficial in tackling more common building fires too, whether they occur in rural or urban environments. When responding to a blaze, the Lancashire Fire Safety & Police in the UK, for example, use the Aeryon SkyRanger UAV to provide an instant overview of fires as they develop and spread.
This vital information gained from this view can help fire services to position equipment and crews on the ground to effectively tackle the flames. As with Notre Dame, the technology enabled the correct use of existing equipment.
Drone technology also helps the fire service safely manage crews on the ground, as the instant overview makes identifying risks to nearby people or buildings and routes to and from the affected area simpler. Enhanced situational awareness offered by UAVs gives the service a strategic advantage, allowing commanders to make more informed forward-planning decisions as the fire’s direction of travel can be accurately predicted, feeding into evacuation strategies.
Urban environments provide more unique challenges in which drones can be a crucial asset. In settings where buildings are typically taller, the ‘third eye’ view from a level plane outside of the building can provide a more insightful view of the fire’s direction of travel.
Additionally, it can help to identify building areas affected and, critically, people within the property. The real-time information the fire service has access to allows them to make decisions based on significant insight and to effectively allocate resources.
UAV technology can also reduce the risk to emergency responders when they enter a burning building, where there may be falling debris or other hazards. Drones can be positioned around the building so that fire service commanders can assess the situation and the danger that it poses to crew and equipment before committing them to the operation.
Technology in action
UAV technology is rapidly improving. SkyRanger, for example, offers HD video alongside an extended flight time and range, providing operators with exceptional clarity and reliability on long missions in harsh and complex environments.
As it’s used in both military and commercial environments, the drone can operate in 65km sustained winds and 90km gusts. The SkyRanger’s extreme capabilities are demonstrated by its use by the British Antarctic Survey; the device can cope with freezing temperatures as well as the dry and arid conditions of deserts, showing it’s ability to withstand the extreme conditions of building fires.
The introduction of drone technology to the fire service’s arsenal presents commanders with a new perspective that gives unprecedented insight into the complex situations they face. The instant overview allows those on the ground to make informed decisions when it comes to managing risk for fire crews and civilians alike, as well as making deployment of equipment more effective, which crucially helps to salvage buildings – like Notre Dame – and, vitally, save lives.
This article was written by Mark Harbin, Business Development Manager, Marlborough Communications Ltd (MCL), and was initially published on IFSEC Global.
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