In Arizona last week, firefighters battling the Williams Fire in the northern part of the state were forced to delay using a helicopter for water drops after an unauthorized drone was reported in the area. Similarly, there were four separate cases of private drones interfering with the recent Pinal Fire in Southern Arizona.
That said, some local firefighting agencies see drones as potentially useful tools for fire incidents, high-risk rescues or other emergencies. Still, they point out the devices must only be used by trained professionals, or they risk becoming a hazard.
Federal agencies also see the drones or unmanned aircraft systems having value, particularly if they are equipped with sensors that add to their features.
“The Forest Service has been exploring the potential to fly UAS to perform wildfire management,” said the agency’s emergency management specialist Mike Ferris.
Ferris said there’s the potential for the UAS to carry equipment that can detect fires, map fires, assess fire potential, and prioritize fires. Also, he said it can assist in identifying roads, potential fire breaks, water sources, potential firelines or helispot locations.
The Forest Service also believes authorized drones used by trained personnel can be helpful to spot fires, assess potential risks, monitor air quality and get infrared images.
“These things can get in places people can’t,” said Richard Fields of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a group representing more than 300,000 firefighters and paramedics. “For a high-rise fire there’s value in having a drone able to get a bird’s eye view on upper floors….[and] for brushfires covering long distances that you can’t do on foot.”
For its part, the L.A. Fire Department wants to use drones, and just this week received approval from a City Council committee. Final approval by the full Council could come in the next few weeks, according to Scott, the L.A. Fire spokesman.
Even so, privacy remains a concern with the use of drones by fire or police agencies, although fire officials insist their drones would only be used for agency purposes—not to snoop on people or property.