Since 2014, Skyfire Consulting has helped over 130 public safety agencies kickstart their drone programs, helping them purchase equipment, file COAs, establish drone training regimens, and get all their paperwork in order. Throughout it all we've learned a tremendous amount about how to efficiently create well-trained and legal fire drone programs, and we've boiled all the different aspects of a program to four key steps.
STEP 1: CHOOSE A REGULATORY FRAMEWORK
This is definitely the most time consuming and confusing part of the process, but it's also arguably the most important. Before you should buy a drone or pay for training, you should first determine the best regulatory framework under which to operate. Fortunately, this decision isn't nearly as complicated as it might seem. There are really just two ways for a fire department to operate legally in the United States
- Part 107 - Commercial operator, individually certified, all waivers and flight responsibilities go with the pilot.
- Certificate of Authorization (COA) - Public Agency designation, all waivers and flight responsibilities rest with the agency.
At Skyfire Consulting we recommend most fire departments operate under a COA because we feel that it provides the most coverage for the department in the most scalable, cost-effective, and manageable way. However, some flights (like demo days, marketing videos) are not covered under the COA, so we still recommend that 1-3 pilots become Part 107 certified as well.
STEP 2: CHOOSE YOUR EQUIPMENT
This is the step most agencies start with, probably because it's the most fun. Choosing the right fire drone, or mix of fire drones, for your department depends on several key factors:
- Types of missions
- Ease of use/maintence
- Weather considerations
The primary concern should be the types of missions you anticipate flying. If you intend to do search and rescue, wildfire, or scene size-up missions then long flight times, weather-resistance, and ensuring your drone can carry a thermal camera are important factors. If budget is a concern, then there are a plenty of lower cost drones that can get your fire department quick eyes in the sky.
STEP 3: GET TRAINED UP
Once you've identified your regulatory framework and ordered your equipment, it's time to identify the number of operators you'll be training and creating a training regimen for them. Keep in mind that neither Part 107 nor the COA process trains the operator how to fly a drone so you will need to provide hands-on training for your operators either through a consultant like Skyfire, or by developing your own regimen. Some key things to consider when creating a training program are:
- 101 training - establishing a baseline measurement of operator proficiency
- Maintenance and reporting - ensuring that all operators understand how to maintain the equipment, and manage FAA reporting requirements
- Currency - creating a framework for operators to keep up to date with their flight training so that their skills don't go "stale."
STEP 4: DEVELOP SOPs AND PULL IT ALL TOGETHER
The last step to developing a fire drone program is to take the three previous steps and pull them all together into a single document, or series of documents, so that the program can replicate itself moving forward. Fortunately most fire departments are comfortable developing SOPs, and so this is often a step that many are capable of handling themselves. There are some important things to remember:
- Who is responsible for the maintenance of the drones and reporting?
- When will drones be deployed?
- Where are you allowed to fly legally, and where do you need additional authorization?
- Important equipment information like serial number, which batteries go where, etc.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it highlights some of the important things you should consider when putting together your fire department's SOPs. Here at Skyfire Consulting, we recommend putting all the information together into a editable, shareable format like a PDF so that everyone at all levels of the chain of command have access to the information.
Obviously, there are lots of little steps along the way to creating a drone program, and an experienced consultancy like Skyfire can definitely help you avoid the most common pitfalls of early stage fire drone programs. But, these four steps are the keys to getting on your way. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to us through our contact page, our live chat, or simply give us a call at (404) 220-7783.
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