It's a common situation for many of the fire departments we've worked with over the last few years; a citizen gets lost in the woods, the mountains, or a body of water and it quickly becomes a race against time to marshal the joint efforts of police, fire, and volunteers to locate the person quickly and, most importantly, alive. Best case scenario, a ton of resources are used to save a life...and in the worst case, time runs out.
As more departments are looking into fire drones, the question of utility comes up a lot. "How will we really use this thing?" is a common question, and the answer is becoming increasingly clear: search and rescue.
No other fire service drone use case has consistently yielded superior results than search and rescue. Whether it's a mountain, wood, or water rescue, drones equipped with thermal imagery and spotlights can give a firefighters eyes in the sky quickly, and can cover more territory more efficiently than just about any method currently available.
What makes a search and rescue drones so powerful is the ability for many to be equipped with high-resolution FLIR thermal cameras, so that even in dark or foggy conditions, fire service drone pilots can locate the victim quickly, and keep eyes on them until they can be rescued. One of the primary limitations of thermal imagery is that it cannot see through water or glass, so in situations with submerged victims or evidence, thermal imagery would not be the best fit.
The ability to drop a payload can also be extremely important in life-threatening situations. Whether you're dropping a walkie-talkie for a hostage, water or first aid kit to a stranded hiker, or sending a rope or flotation device in a water rescue, drones give you an unprecedented opportunity to reach victims in hard-to-reach places.
Another add-on for search and rescue UAS are flashing lights to firefighters on the ground locate the victim. An UAS's onboard GPS will keep the drone stationary in the air, giving those on the ground a point to work toward.
So, if you are considering whether a drone program is worth it for your fire department, think on all the times in the last year thousands of dollars and tons of man-hours have been spent saving a single life. Imagine if that same life could have been saved in half the time, with half the cost. That's the potential of drones in search and rescue.
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