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Drones & Policy - New Technology for the Fire Services

The information contained in this article is evolving and a department desiring to obtain and use drones or UAV, must check for the most recent rules and regulations related to this issue.

New technology for the fire service is not without controversy from the use of new nozzles, tactics and training, protective clothing, SCBA technology, holographic images on your face shields, mobile data terminals, engine configurations, fire attack, command & control management systems, thermal imaging cameras and so much more.

There is one latest technology that is causing the latest “buzz” and that is the technology of drones, UAV’s or UAS or however you choose use these identifiers.

One would think, there are thousands of these devices operated by children and adults in a recreational setting; what is the need for burdensome regulation and certification of UAV operators in your fire department. The FAA is actually prohibited by Congress from setting rules governing the use of drones by recreational users in a law passed in 2012 as the drones do not interfere with air traffic for drones of a certain size and weight. They can set the rules for your department and other business entities.

Drones have been getting bad press especially where there is an invasion of someone’s privacy by flying over back yards or bedroom windows, flying too close to airports creating a flying hazard to crashing on the White House lawn triggering a significant federal response. Additional bad press is the use of drones by police performing surveillance to the increased use of large drones by the government to surveil certain populations with facial recognition software, infrared technology and listening devices used to monitor our conversations invading our right to privacy.

There are many business who see the future of the use of drones such as Amazon who is planning to use drones to deliver your material orders directly to your home and place of business, to realtors using the device to provide an aerial view of property: to emergency services with the proposed delivery of a defibrillator to the scene of a cardiac arrest for use by the lay public and lifeguards using the device to deliver a flotation device to drowning individuals.

Who knows, someday your pizza delivery may actually get to your home freshly made and hot – delivered by a drone.

Drone use by the fire service is an invaluable tool to improve the ability of the fire departments to perform an actual 360 degree survey AND to look at the roof structure of the building; perform an aerial overview of a wildland fire event; perform a search and rescue for a lost child or hiker, locating flood victims without deploying your staffing resources in the wrong area; ability to penetrate areas of a large open building to perform search in the attempt to locate possible victims or the seat of the fire using thermal imaging or infrared cameras on the UAV. Several departments have adopted the use of drones in their emergency operations.

However, with anything of a certain size and flying at a certain altitude, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires a license and a case by case review of the proposed use by commercial or business entities and emergency services.

Here is a link to an overview of the current rules and regulations from the FAA:

Under the proposed rule, the person actually flying a small UAS would be an “operator.” An operator would have to be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate. To maintain certification, the operator would have to pass the FAA knowledge tests every 24 months. A small UAS operator would not need any further private pilot certifications (i.e., a private pilot license or medical rating).

The new FAA rule also proposes operating limitations designed to minimize risks to other aircraft and people and property on the ground:

  • A small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.

  • The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.

  • A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.

  • A small UAS may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.

  • Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.

  • Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

Emergency Services Waiver - COA

A "Certificate of Waiver or Authorization" (COA) is available to government entities that want to fly a UAS in civil airspace. Common uses include law enforcement, firefighting, border patrol, disaster relief, search and rescue, military training and other government operational missions.

Applicants must submit their COA request through an online system. The FAA then evaluates the proposed operation to see if it can be conducted safely. If granted, the COA allows an operator to use a defined block of airspace, and includes special provisions unique to the proposed operation. For instance, a COA may require flying only under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) and/or only during daylight hours.

Today, the average time to obtain an authorization for non-emergency operations is less than 60 days, and the renewal period is two years. The agency has expedited procedures to grant one-time COAs for time-sensitive emergency missions such as disaster relief and humanitarian efforts — sometimes in just a few hours.

In any situation when fire departments use drones, it must be in compliance following the rules and regulations promulgated by the FAA and the modifications that will occur in the final ruling scheduled sometime in 2016. 



Disclaimer – this does not constitute legal advice. Fire Departments must consult with their attorney for a review of any policy prior to publication and utilization.

POLICY – The Fire Department shall use Fire Department purchased Drones (UAS) or Unmanned Aircraft Vehicles (UAV) for Search and Rescue and at fire responses.

RESPONSIBILITY - It shall be the responsibility of all personnel to familiarize themselves and consistently apply the provisions of this policy.


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the process of updating their rules and regulations on the use of Drones. This department will engage in the use of drone aircraft following the tenants of the proposed FAA rules and regulations related to this equipment.

The Fire Department shall obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA.

The Fire Department will train individuals on each shift in the safe operation of drones which may eventually require those individuals to pass an aeronautics test and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or other authorized agency.


  • The Fire Department unit shall meet FAA size requirements to operate legally during emergency situations as declared by the on-scene commander or their designee.

    • Examples are: structure fires, wildland fires, flood operations, Search and Rescue, upon a request from the local Police Department, State Patrol or Sheriff’s Office.

  • Area of Operation – limited to incident unless there is a search for a lost hiker or other such operations requiring the UAV to operate out of the sightline of the operator.

    • The UAV shall generally operate within the sightline of the operator unless conditions dictate the use in an out of sight environment.

    • The Operator must document this deviation in the Flight Log
  • Training

    • Operators of UAV equipment shall be certified to operate the equipment under FAA rules and regulations.

    • Operators of UAV equipment shall be trained to safely operate and maintain the UAV equipment.

    • UAV operators shall have detailed instructions on individual rights and liberties under the Constitution and State law and shall fully understand the laws protecting those rights.

    • There shall be a written examination and flight operation test prior to being allowed to operate the UAV.

  • Authorization from Command Officer of designee

    • The UAV shall ONLY be deployed at the direction of the Command Officer or designee.

    • At no time shall the UAV be “loaned out” to any other agency for any purpose without prior written permission from the Chief of the Department or designee.

    • Requests for such use must be in writing from the requesting agency and for strictly emergency purposes.

      • Examples – searching for a suspect by the police department, search and rescue organizations and other similar pre-approved organizations.

  • Electronic Recording

    • All electronic recordings obtained during the course of UAV operations including during training events become the property of the fire department.

    • All electronic recordings shall be stored in a secure location on a department server with limited access in a protected file and storage shall be for a minimum of five (5) years.

    • Access to the data by employees for viewing shall be allowed by the Chief of the Chief’s designee upon written request and after a review of the request.

    • Request for copies of the stored electronic recordings shall require a written request from the requestor and reviewed by the department as per their records release policy.

    • Requests by the media need to be in writing and shall be reviewed by the fire departments attorney prior to release.

  • Flight Logs - Operations

    • A flight log shall be maintained by the operator of the UAV

    • Operations – After each deployment of the UAV during an emergency or at the request of a law enforcement agency, a complete record of the operation shall be maintained by the operator to include: the date and time of deployment; the name of the Command Officer; name of the operator; the Incident Number; the start and end time of operation; address of the deployment, and area flown.

      • A short narrative of the operation and outcomes shall be required as part of the flight log.

    • Damage to the UAV or damage caused by the UAV shall be logged

    • Complaints from citizens shall be recorded during any particular phase of each operation

  • Flight Log - Training

    • Training – All training on the UAV shall be recorded in the Training Log to include: the name of the operator; the date, time and training time; the area of operation and if there were any technical issues with the use of the UAV equipment.

  • Re-Certification

    • Each operator shall be recertified in accordance to FAA rules and regulations

  • Working around other aircraft – News Helicopters, Sheriff Helicopters, Medical Airlift Helicopters and Airport Operations.

    • The UAV shall not interfere with the flight operations of any fixed wing or rotary wing aircraft.

    • The UAV shall be grounded during air operations of any emergency rotary winged aircraft at the scene of the emergency.

  • Privacy

    • UAV operations shall not infringe upon the rights and liberties of individuals

      • Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Protections. The Department shall protect civil rights and civil liberties during UAV operations :

        • The Fire Department shall:

          • (i) ensure that policies are in place to prohibit the collection, use, retention, or dissemination of data in any manner that would violate the First Amendment or in any manner that would discriminate against persons based upon their ethnicity, race, gender, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity, in violation of law;

          • (ii) ensure that UAV activities are performed in a manner consistent with the Constitution and applicable local and State laws,

          • (iii) ensure that adequate procedures are in place to receive, investigate, and address, as appropriate, privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties complaints.





  1. Press Release – DOT and FAA Propose New Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems. February 15, 2015 Regulations will facilitate integration of small UAS into U.S. aviation system

  2. See -  Protections of 4th Amendment Rights

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