Fire and Rescue Drones: At Work in Middle Tennessee

Sept. 8, 2021
Glenn Johnson points to a handful of operations that prove the worth of his department's launch of a drone fleet.

On March 28, 2021, during a deadly flash flooding event in middle Tennessee, despite warnings, a man went kayaking on the Harpeth River in Franklin, TN. Shortly thereafter, a motorist spotted the man from an overpass and called 9-1-1, reporting that the man’s kayak capsized and that he appeared to be in distress. The Franklin Fire Department (FFD) was dispatched to rescue him.

What made this search and rescue operation unique for the department was the way that FFD members located the victim—with the assistance of a drone. In less than 15 minutes, FFD’s drone team (Capt. Clay Mackey and Firefighter/Paramedic Daniel Donegan) spotted the victim by using a drone that had a thermal sensor. The victim was clinging, unharmed, to trees, which were surrounded by floodwaters.

The drone enabled just two department members to search a large area without having to place personnel in the water. In fact, crews didn’t enter the water until they knew the victim’s precise location. Once the victim was found, the drone allowed the drone team to visually monitor the victim and the rescue operation, which added a layer of safety to the incident. If any part of the rescue went wrong, the team would have been able to redirect further resources immediately.

Building a fleet

In the past year, the FFD increasingly used drones during a variety of incidents, special events and geographic information system (GIS) projects.

The FFD, which has eight stations and 150 personnel, purchased its first drone in 2018 for $1,500. It couldn’t be flown because of the city’s drone policy, which was restrictive, and the fact that the department lacked licensed drone pilots.

Deputy Chief Andy King, Mackey and Donegan, who serve in administration and oversee technology solutions for the department, sought to remedy that. It was a slow process: Generally, working to change standard operating procedures is.

The three members worked with the city’s legal department to develop a policy that allows for quick response in emergency situations and public safety operations. The new policy also required board approval. Then, Donegan obtained his Remote Pilot Certificate from the ­Federal Aviation Administration in July of 2020. Donegan took approximately one month to prepare for the self-study course and exam.

Because Mackey and Donegan aren’t on-shift, they self-dispatch or respond when called by an incident commander. They began responding to various incidents in 2020, including a crane collapse, a commercial structure fire at a 250,000-sq.-ft. warehouse building and residential structure fires.

The team quickly found that drones offer many advantages over the traditional scene size-up. One is providing a rapid overhead view that can be transmitted directly to incident command.

On most single-family homes, drones can provide a constant 360-degree aerial vantage point. This helps incident command to quickly analyze the scene, continuously monitor roofline heat conditions, identify hot spots, and make decisions on tactics and strategies without placing anyone in the area.

A nighttime train trestle rescue of two teenagers in August 2020 made the department realize that it needed a drone for low-visibility situations. So, within just a few months of implementing its drone program, the FFD purchased two drones that have thermal cameras, lights and speakers, which brought the department’s total fleet of drones to three.

Each of the department’s drones has a purpose and is utilized uniquely.

The DJI Phantom 4 V.2 has been invaluable in conducting thorough damage-­assessment surveys following severe weather events, including flooding. The overhead imagery is compatible with the software that the city’s GIS team uses (Esri) and can be added as a layer in that team’s mapping system.

The DJI Mavic Enterprise Dual and DJI Mavic Enterprise Advanced are the department’s main go-to drones when it comes to incident response. They are quick out-of-the-box and into-the-air drones that offer visual and thermal cameras. They have the capability to quickly illuminate a scene at night and to deliver one-way communication to a victim or subject.

The latest uses

In 2021, the department used the newer models in its fleet during a February winter and ice storm in response to a large metal barn collapse that trapped four horses. The drones were used to monitor for structural defects and life-safety concerns for the firefighters who worked below.

In May, the FFD assisted law enforcement personnel with a nighttime search of a rooftop for a burglary suspect.

Finally, the drones have been useful for special events, including sweeping a field after a pyrotechnic show.

Drones have benefitted the Franklin Fire Department in ways that its members never imagined, and the department will continue to leverage them even more.




May 1, 2020

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