Send In the Drones

Send In the Drones

By Valerie Amato Dec 14, 2017

As drone technology continues to advance, more first responder agencies are turning to the devices as operational aids. Rescue crews utilized drones as aerial surveillance tools during hurricane relief efforts in 2017, fire departments use them as a bird’s-eye view to assess the structural integrity of buildings, and search and rescue teams send thermal imaging-equipped drones to find avalanche victims. But with new technology comes new hurdles, and education is necessary to mitigate the associated risks. 

Aviation novices, especially those operating small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) recreationally, can easily be unfamiliar with or unaware of the regulations they are responsible for following.

Tara M. Stearman works as a Senior Unmanned Systems Analyst for PropelUAS, a division of Evans Incorporated, that helps those who are new to aviation navigate these hurdles. Her team ensures that people entering aviation for the first time fully understand how to safely operate within the National Airspace System (NAS), particularly when it comes to utilizing drones.

“The team has more than 100 years of aviation-specific experience,” says Stearman. “We focus on four key pillars: strategy, operation, safety management, and risk management. Particularly, if an organization is looking to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into their current operation, we can help with that integration.”

Stearman identifies some of the main reasons drones are useful to first responders: They’re easy to deploy and capable of accessing small spaces, making them highly maneuverable. They can also fly at low levels with low visibility and have a small noise footprint. 

Despite these benefits, though, it’s important for agencies to identify a specific goal or purpose for what they hope to achieve before purchasing a drone.

“I want to know your mission, what success is going to look like for you, what your priorities are, and then reverse-engineer and figure out from there your next steps and mission- appropriate UAS recommendations,” Stearman says. 

PropelUAS encourages agencies to establish a plan for drone use before an emergency occurs that requires drone operation. This way, the organization can help determine what kinds of drones are in its price range and which will complement its needs based on features, maneuverability, and add-on equipment. 

Since drone technology is still in the early stages of use and development, restrictions are tight to ensure the safety of operators and the public. However, Stearman encourages industry leaders to “think outside of the box in how to apply this technology.” While PropelUAS helps agencies operate in compliance with FAA regulations, she says it also “helps push the boundaries and expand your operation into other missions as the legislation evolves and allows for more opportunities to leverage unmanned aircraft systems and further benefit your core business.” 

Understanding and Education

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Unfortunately, those who aren’t fully informed on safe and proper drone usage can pose major threats to other operating aircraft. During many of California’s wildfires in the last couple of years, responding agencies were forced to land firefighting aircraft due to drone interference. A collision with a drone could cause catastrophic damage to an aircraft. 

“I think that comes back to an understanding and an education issue,” says Stearman. “When there’s a misconception or misunderstanding about the NAS, the missing link is typically a lack of knowledge and education.” 

PropelUAS offers the guidance and education “not to train to pass the certification, but to train to understand the impact of operating within the NAS and ensure you can safely do so,” she says.

Emergency personnel should make sure each person’s role is clearly established once their training is completed so different agencies can work as a cohesive unit during drone operations. Emphasizing the need for proper education on using drones, Stearman says to consider the roles being reversed: You wouldn’t want her to get in an ambulance and treat patients with zero emergency medical training.

Stearman’s team recently provided training to a law enforcement agency utilizing drones for Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization that provides fire-rescue and law enforcement agencies with the technology to find lost individuals with cognitive disorders. She says they have since heard of many success stories from that agency since its training with PropelUAS.

Public safety agencies across the board can benefit greatly from drone operations. During Hurricane Harvey, the FAA approved 138 special authorization requests to operate drones for disaster relief, and 80 authorizations were issued during Hurricane Irma. Drones featuring technologies like “sniffers” evaluated areas for gas leaks, averting the need for rescue crews to be sent in with bulky equipment for testing.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said, “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.” Stearman agrees and added, “2017 disaster relief efforts served as the national debut of UAS applications and in a way that touched the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, in a time of great need.”

The ability to use drones relieved the need to fly more traditional aircraft, which would have put “further congestion and stress on an already complex aeronautical situation,” she says, since disaster areas are often assigned temporary flight restrictions. Because of their ease of maneuverability, drones also helped speed up the process of determining how much funding FEMA would provide for relief efforts based on aerial assessments of damage. 

Stearman believes drones will soon become an integral part of disaster recovery efforts, with safety being the No. 1 reason. Rescue crews can determine the risk of sending in a regular manned aircraft versus an unmanned aircraft based on the potential cost of manpower and equipment loss. 

“If you lose a drone or small unmanned aircraft system for whatever reason, it’s not going to have as large of an impact financially or in terms of lives lost when compared to the loss of a small aircraft,” she says.

Drones can also play an important role in mass-casualty incidents. Aerial surveillance of triage and incident scenes provides improved situational awareness for those on the ground.

“It increases the ability to identify additional hazards, it provides real-time data from otherwise-inaccessible areas, and then gives you that temporal and geospatial comprehension,” Stearman says. “You can see events as they occur, and whoever is directing on the ground can make smarter decisions for more effective actions and make those real-time strategy adjustments.

“Ultimately, we’re reducing risk to humans,” she says. “The crews can focus on the task at hand and be able to avoid high-risk areas.” For example, a drone could be used to inspect an accident site, like a collapsed bridge. The drone could assess if the structural integrity of that bridge is too dangerous to send crews in to search for survivors. 

“It is my hope that the industry reaches a point, especially in times of emergencies and search and rescue [operations], that allows UAS operations to be leveraged to the greatest extent possible,” Stearman says. 

Although Stearman doesn’t believe drones should serve as replacements for emergency personnel, they do serve as incredibly useful tools. “First responders are our everyday heroes,” she says, “so why not help them do their job more easily and effectively?

“It’s all about that human element,” Stearman adds, noting how everyone at some point will need or know someone in need of help from first responders. “It’s about how we can better save lives—save them faster, save more lives, and preserve the quality of life for someone who’s injured.”

If your agency is seeking training for drone operations, visit and click “Meet the Experts.” You can also e-mail Tara M. Stearman at

Valerie Amato is an assistant editor with EMS World. Contact her at 


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