INTERVIEW: How UK Firefighters are Using Drones to Save Lives and Property

Wildfire beater MWWFRS

Emergency services around the United Kingdom are realising how useful drones can be. Many are trialling UAVs and they’re finding that they make operations safer, faster and cheaper. One of the first fire and rescue services to embrace drone technology has been Mid and West Wales (MWWFRS). It covers 4,500 square miles, that’s nearly two thirds of Wales, and employs more than 1,400 people.

It’s responsible for the urban areas of Swansea, Neath and Port Talbot as well as wild and isolated countryside. In mid November 2015 they bought a DJI Inspire 1 from Heliguy and trained pilots thanks to a £20,000 grant from the Welsh Government. The service has also ordered the new DJI Zenmuse XT thermal camera to enhance its drone capability.

Station Officer Sean Lloyd is the lead pilot based in the Operational Risk Management Department at the service’s headquarters in Carmarthen.

Station Officer Sean Lloyd Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service

Station Officer Sean Lloyd, Fire and Rescue Service drone pilot

What prompted MWWFRS to trial drones? 

Group Manager Steve McLinden, Head of Technical Services, scanned the industry (both in the UK and Europe) and identified that UAVs were starting to be used successfully to assist the fire sector move forward with technology. They also allow Incident Commanders to have on demand footage of an incident whereby he / she could dynamically make decisions to bring incidents successfully to a close. The Welsh Minister for Public Services accepted a grant funding bid by MWWFRS to support the continued reduction and successful resolution of wildfires.

How difficult was it to persuade the people who hold the purse strings that the trial was a good idea?

Wildfires in Wales reached a level not experienced for a number of years in 2015. This prompted action by all three Welsh fire and rescue services which concluded in a summit set up to deal with the fires nationally. The Welsh Minister was a key figure in these discussions so I believe that with his knowledge of the devastation wildfires can do, introducing UAVs as a tool to assist at incidents, but also to pre-plan at known wildfire locations, proved the trial would benefit Wales as an asset to tackle these incidents.

Welsh wild fire

How has the trial been funded and how long will it last?

The trial was funded by the Welsh government and following an initial successful 3 month trial it has now been extended a further 12 months.

How many pilots and aircraft do you have?

Currently we have six CAA trained pilots, and one trained camera operator with one DJI Inspire 1 aircraft. We are hoping by end of May 2016 to have a further four pilots trained and, with the purchase of the new Zenmuse XT thermal imaging camera, to begin night operations.

The service covers a vast area of Wales, how have you prioritised use of the DJI Inspire?

As we have only a limited number of pilots we are utilising officers who will work together on our Combined Tactical Rota. As two are required to be mobilised at a time we will ensure two pilots on each of the five groups to allow 24/7 cover.

What have you used it for so far?

We have done a lot of engagement with our Command Areas to promote the UAV and its benefits. We’ve also taken part in local exercises and multi-agency exercises where the UAV has greatly assisted dynamic risk assessments and the decision making process. Operationally it’s been requested over 20 occasions, however due to weather and time of day constraints it’s only been used operationally on four of those. The joys of a Welsh winter!

House fire drone shot

An invaluable drone view of a house fire

In which types of incidents has it been most useful?

On the incidents and training scenarios attended, it’s given the Incident Commander footage they would not have had otherwise.

During a fire in a built up area, the UAV gave the incident commander a view of the area of roof that was ablaze and how the adjoining properties were effected. The area was too small to deploy our regular hydraulic platform.

In a suicide incident involving poisonous chemicals we were able to fly the UAV to the location whilst crews remained upwind. We were able to get details of the chemicals involved, allowing the service Hazardous Material Officer to advise on the level of protection required. It also gave an overview of the locks on the entrance and allowed crews involved to take the correct equipment to open the door.

Have there been any unexpected benefits?

We have used the UAV to carry out site surveys on behalf of our premises departments, which would have incurred extra costs. Issues with a roof at a station allowed us to give footage immediately.

River Exercise Neath

A river exercise at Neath

How has the DJI Inspire compared to your expectations?

It has been a really good unit to allow us to identify the benefits of UAVs in service. The low cost Inspire is easy to manoeuvre and the footage is really clear.

If you could suggest improvements to the Inspire or drones in general so that they would be more suitable to your work, what would they be?

Easy secure data transfer. We have encountered issues sending our data via secure servers etc. An increased range of operability, particularly for bad weather. Increased payloads and instant connect accessories such as gas or radiation monitors and universal delivery systems for items such as pilot lines, radios or small items of equipment.

That’s quite a shopping list. I imagine you’re looking forward to the arrival of DJI’s thermal camera. What difference will that make to your work?

As a service we are now ready to start flying 24/7. We have identified the real benefits the UAV can provide, but also identified its limitations of not flying in the dark. The DJI Zenmuse XT thermal camera will allow us to become one of the few Fire and Rescue services in the UK with the 24/7 capability as well as assisting in our ability to monitor fire spread at incidents or search for missing persons.

How has your experience so far changed your view of UAVs?

Now I use them regularly, my viewpoint is why wouldn’t you have one available to use at an incident. They give so much information to crews but also the other uses it has like scene surveys, exercises etc.

What’s been the reaction of fellow firefighters to the use of drones?

As with anything new there is always scepticism. Everyone who has seen it operate realises the benefits. A major part of our communication strategy within the service has been to visit as many areas as we can to publicise its uses. It’s interesting to note that initially most people focus on the UAV itself, however once we have shown them the images their focus moves to the advantages that this dynamic information provides them.

Dynevor House

Firefighters at Dynevor House, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire

What interest has there been from other fire services? Have you been setting the trend in Wales?

Interest has been high; we are getting calls from other UK FRSs interested in our journey so far, as they are just starting. We have also sat on the Chief Fire Officers Association drone working group. Within Wales, even though MWWFRS have the CAA trained pilots, we are going to work with South and North Wales and visit areas to demonstrate its use.

How would you like to see the use of drones develop in MWWFRS?

As we are still in our infancy, the next stage would be to get 24/7 and then grow our platform requirements.

How confident are you that the trial will be successful and lead to UAVs being a permanent part of the fire service’s arsenal?

I am very confident; everyone has only positive things to say. Also we have been busy when the weather has not allowed us to operate fully. Now with the summer approaching we are looking to be used more. With the introduction of the XT thermal imaging camera this, I think, will ensure that UAVs remain an important resource in MWWFRS for the foreseeable future.

Welsh Fire Service

Firefighter trials about to get better

First impressions are very encouraging from Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service. The imminent arrival of their DJI thermal camera will make their drone even more valuable to them. We look forward to getting an update in the near future.

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