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Five Questions With: Mike Nolan on Using Drones in EMS

News headlines abound that speculate on the value of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, commonly known as drones) to aid first responders and search teams in locating and accessing patients more quickly. But stories of agencies that are actually fully operational with the devices remain rare.

One exception is the County of Renfrew in Ontario, which has been fully operational with UAVs for over seven years. Michael Nolan, MA, CCP(F), chief paramedic and director of emergency services for Renfrew, is a staunch proponent of UAV technology and its ability to protect lives in his rugged 10,000-square-kilometer jurisdiction on the west bank of the Ottawa River.

And while public-safety drones have been flying over the striking landscape of Renfrew since 2012, research into new capabilities of the technology continues.

A trial completed in September 2019 demonstrated the capabilities of LTE-connected drones to fly beyond the line of sight and deliver an AED to a scene more than seven minutes before paramedic vehicles operating in a 10-mile radius in Renfrew. The municipality is one of the first in the country to be granted permission to fly drones beyond the line of sight.

EMS World sat down with Nolan to learn more about how his department is mobilizing drone technology to access patients more quickly, and what’s next for the program.

EMS World: Can you walk us through the origins of your drone program at Renfrew County?

Nolan: One of our staff paramedics (James Power) happens to be an ex-military drone pilot and we had some early talks in 2012 about using drones to access remote, dangerous or difficult-to-access scenes. We started with a hobby-model drone and soon added units that could fly longer and carry attachments. From there, we worked with Transport Canada (our regulatory agency here) to specify added heights and distances we can fly. The original concept centered around AED delivery—how great it would be to be able to fly a defibrillator to a scene. We have AEDs installed in public places, but they make up only 20% of cardiac arrest calls. The idea behind the drones is, we take the AED off the wall and put it at your door. But the capabilities really are limitless—medications, flotation devices, locator technology, tethers and improving situational awareness at complex scenes are just a few of the areas beyond AEDs that drones can aid in.

EMS World: What does the program entail—how many devices, who flies them, how are they used?

Nolan: Our agency has 6 drones at the moment. Two of them have a heavier lift capability. One is an “eye in the sky” for searching—it has infrared night capability and can read a license plate over a kilometer away. Two of the units have “dropper” capability to release a package to a patient or to a crew. Under our current configuration, three primary pilots have the drone with them at all times on shift. Should a situation come up that the crew decides a drone would be faster to reach than a vehicle, the pilot activates the drone, enters the coordinates and flies it to the scene. The game-changer now is that we can fly beyond the line of sight.

EMS World: Can you give us a sense of the types of calls where you will mobilize the drones?

Nolan: A lot of the calls you might consider very “Canadian.” Lost hikers, hunters or boaters, swiftwater rescues requiring a tether. But this is not just about finding people out in the sticks or sending an AED to a remote island. Traffic congestion is another barrier that drones can overcome. The different seasons bring different reasons to deploy them. In one case a snowmobiler had crashed through thin ice. Using the drone we could view and assess the scene and determine a plan of action. While we didn’t save a life that day, we may have prevented the loss of many others by not placing responders in unnecessary danger. That’s just one illustration of why they are so important.

EMS World: Are the drones difficult to operate?

Nolan: They are very advanced and user-friendly. As commercial pilots will tell you, the flying is easy—the landing is hard. It is a learnable skill, but it’s like communicating in a different language. The drones can input data directly from a 9-1-1 call and travel to a scene with GPS technology, or it can be flown completely manually. You do need to understand distance regulations, wind effects, technical specifications and knowing the limitations of the drone. You have to remember that these devices are merely extensions of human response that give us an edge. The understanding is, if we don’t send one up, we know something bad will happen. If we do fly, we at least give ourselves a chance of mitigating it.

EMS World: How can our readers learn more about launching their own program?

Nolan: First, you need to know the rules of your jurisdiction regarding UAV flight and learn the regulatory and certification requirements for pilots in your area. For Canadian agencies, we launched a nonprofit (www.flyy.ca) so that anyone can come off the street, log into the program, and perform a “ground school” training session to challenge any regulatory exam. These devices are very user-friendly now, and lots of people pilot drones. But a backyard hobby pilot is different than saving a life.

Learn more at www.flyy.ca

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