Fire Departments and Investigators Increase Use of Drone Technology
Written by Greg Bishop   

FIRE DEPARTMENTS ARE WAKING UP to the advantages of using drones to aid in their dangerous work. Drone technology and imagery offers a literal overall view at the scene of an active fire and, increasingly, in the investigation that follows. Firefighting professionals have continued to realize the important role that even consumer-level unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) can play in their always-changing field.


This article appeared in the March-April 2021 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.
You can view that full issue here.

Most are familiar with the negative stories: UAVs owned by private individuals shut down critical operations by preventing aerial wildfire operations and wasting valuable time while authorities locate and ground the perpetrators. From 2018 to 2019, at least 19 incidents of this type were logged during firefighting efforts in southern California alone—and private UAVs completely halted all aerial operations on at least nine occasions.

During the massive 2019 Santa Maria Fire in southern California, the Ventura County Fire Department stopped all aerial firefighting operations at about 3:30 a.m. on November 1 due to the presence of a consumer drone spotted in the area. While officials and chiefs were busy looking for the perpetrator, another drone was spotted only 45 minutes later. At a press conference, Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub lamented that the situation “creates a very significant hazard for our airborne firefighting assets and causes them to land and stop firefighting.” Incidents such as these made local and national news and caused the FAA to impose new and stricter regulations, as well as punishments for drone pilots who choose to fly in restricted airspace—specifically in areas designated as TFR (temporary flight restriction) such as sporting events, presidential visits, and of course firefighting operations.

The problem with drones—especially the smaller, consumer versions—is that they are difficult to spot, particularly from the air, and that they operate in the same general airspace as firefighting aircraft such as tankers and helicopters, generally 200–400 feet above ground level (AGL).

Heather Taylor, a former mapping specialist with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), said that their agency has used drone footage to map the extent and progress of forest fires and other wildfires, but that these are from high-altitude aircraft typically used by the military as well as intelligence organizations.

The realization that UAVs could be a boon rather than a bane to their work was quickly realized by many fire agencies and departments. A source in the Fire Management Department of the U.S. Forest Service acknowledges that smaller drones have only recently been incorporated into the toolkit for their agency, saying that there are currently only two drone coordinators for the entire western region of the United States. Even though the program is in its infancy, he predicts that they “will become prevalent in investigations, [but] I just haven't seen any official policy or guidance yet.”

Some organizations and departments, however, are leaping ahead with the use of UAVs in their work.

Off-the-shelf "prosumer" drones can be used to assist in recon and situational awareness at structure fires and wildfires.

For the past few years, fire professionals have been using off-the-shelf “prosumer” drones such as DJI’s Phantom 4 to assist in recon and situational awareness of structure fires and wildfires in real time. This offers more immediate and detailed feedback of a developing scenario so that crews can respond to problem areas and better control a spreading conflagration. According to veteran Cal Fire Crew Chief Paul Waddell, advance personnel are beginning to carry such devices in their vehicles and deploy them in order to assess the extent and spread of a fire even before the first crews can arrive.

Fire Chief Tim Henry of California’s North Central Fire District says that his organization is “early in our drone program” but that his department is seeking to certify more personnel with the FAA from within the district. The Fresno (California) Fire Department first developed their program six months ago, he says, and now has “two drones, both DJI” which “are designed to be carried by our battalion chiefs for rescue calls or other events for quick deployable coverage.” Fire Captain Brian Downs says the Fresno Fire Department “requires our pilots to obtain FAA's Part 107 certification as well as complete in-house training and skills flying.”

Anyone operating a drone for pay (including those working in organizations whose main industry is not aerial photography—such as real estate, construction, and insurance) must have a commercial unmanned aerial system (UAS) license from the Federal Aviation Administration in their possession during any flying operations. To become a commercial drone operator, applicants must pass an extensive written test at an approved testing facility, demonstrating a detailed knowledge of national airspace zones, weather, aeronautical and safety aspects of drone operation, and even radio communication with air traffic control. Resources are available to teach anyone these skills in only a few days, such as courses offered through companies like Drone Universities, LLC. Government organizations and private companies typically send their applicants to schools like these in order to streamline the learning process and make sure that their employees pass the exam on the first try.

Although UAVs are well on their way to becoming a common sight at fire incidents, the possibility for evidence collection after the fact during investigations is also making headway amongst local fire departments as well as regional and national agencies of the government. Henry reports that the second drone in use in his district is a larger model “with a high-resolution video camera and thermal imager intended for our arson investigator use” which “takes a few extra minutes for deployment, but produces a much [better imaged] product.”

The two main issues in fire investigation are origin and cause, according to fire-mapping specialist Taylor. “Typically, once you determine origin (the precise area where the fire started),” Taylor said, “then you can go through a process of elimination to determine the cause.”

By finding and examining the area where a fire began, clues can be used to determine how the incident may have started. One of the main problems is that the fire has often destroyed the evidence of its origin, so investigators often need to be experts in many fields in order to approach the multidisciplinary nature of the task. Prior to 1992, this skill was ordinarily passed on in an apprenticeship format within local fire departments. In that year, the “Guide for Fire and Explosive Investigations” was published by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA.) This provided guidelines and valuable information in determining how to locate and examine evidence, such as remnants of accelerants like gasoline or other chemicals. Although the original release was met with widespread resistance, it is now regarded as the standard for professionals.

Captain Downs reports that the Fresno Fire Department “purchased a drone to capture training exercises and emergency incident operations. The ability to capture images from the air seemed like a good idea to assist with investigations—to capture areas that were difficult to photograph.”

Quadcopter-type drones equipped with digital cameras help capture aerial images in difficult-to-reach areas.

Many fire scenes remain dangerous for investigators to enter in order to gather and examine evidence, and UAVs can provide a safe and effective way to perform this work. Downs says that drones have also helped the investigation of structure fires where fatalities occurred, and that “reports typically include a layout of the incident and structure. Google Maps was typically used but having the images from the time of the incident has proved more helpful.”

One of the main objectives of the investigation is to determine whether the fire was intentionally set. Aerial photography of an incident location can be helpful in locating the origin and possible cause. This also helps to prevent false accusations of arson in cases involving suspected murder. In 1991, a fire in Cameron Todd Willingham’s Texas home resulted in the death of his three daughters. Investigators determined that the fire was intentionally set based on what is now seen as questionable evidence and the testimony of a jailhouse informant. Willingham was sentenced to death. In 2004, new techniques which were outlined in the NFPA guide were used to determine that the suspect could not have started the fire, but officials did not bother to look at the report before Willingham was executed by the State of Texas.

Today’s drones (even consumer models) use high-resolution imagery and video to record events on the ground. Post-image processing is also used to create sophisticated “point clouds” which can be used to render detailed 3D maps. Thermal imagery (especially during and in the immediate aftermath of an incident) can also reveal hotspots and even flaws and cracks in construction materials that are invisible to the naked eye or in photos using the visible spectrum. Michael Martin, fire marshal with the Topeka (Kansas) Fire Department, commented that aerial drone information gives his personnel “the opportunity to see where the hot spots are, and the opportunity to see how the fire burned or is progressing, either in investigations or in an active fire.”

There are differing advantages to both video and still pictures in firefighting and investigation. Chief Downs said that in a typical incident, “video is primarily used since it allows better spatial awareness and understanding. Still images are captured for documentation of specific elements.”

As for how differing formats and resolutions are used, Downs said his department prefers to record “at 4k resolution unless the event will be extended, which we can drop down to 1080 to allow longer recordings.” As data speeds and capacities improve, so will the amount and detail of the imagery that can be obtained.

Unmanned aerial systems are changing many industries and professions and the field is projected to grow at least 66% every year until at least 2023. The advantage of an “eye in the sky” has transformed such diverse fields as agriculture, power generation, and infrastructure inspection, making valuable information available to more people at a greatly reduced cost and with much better safety than traditional aerial imagery obtained with airplanes and helicopters. Coupled with a basic knowledge of fire science, the use of any reasonably sophisticated unmanned aerial system is quickly becoming an indispensable tool for all firefighters and forensic investigators.

About the Author
Greg Bishop is a lead instructor for Drone Universities, LLC specializing in FAA part 107 test preparation, safety, and operations.

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