Upon arriving at the scene of an incident, emergency responders are desperate to wrap their brains around the “situation.” Students taking an Initial Attack Incident Commander class are prompted to ask themselves, “What have I got? Where is it going?” 

Successful incident management starts with a thorough and complete size up. One definition of size-up is, “The continuous mental evaluation of an incident with proper problem identification and those other factors related to situational awareness.”

For many years, size-up has been conducted either by a “hot lap” around the incident on foot or a single dimensional view by the incident commander (IC). However, this often leaves questions about what exactly is happening. Is there a man down? Are there vessel impingements by fire?

There are variables for which IC must make some assumptions while formulating and developing the Incident Action Plan (IAP) or tactical plan. An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is technology that emergency responders are discovering as a helpful resource for size-up.


In the spring of 2015, All Clear Fire Training and Consulting was contacted by the Storey County, NV, Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) and requested to bid on designing and building a level “A” hazmat exercise. Storey County LEPC submitted a Hazardous Materials Emergency Planning (HMEP) grant through the Nevada State Emergency Response Commission (SERC).

The bid was awarded to All Clear Fire. A design and build planning team was formed from an industrial company (the host), All Clear Fire Training and Consulting, Storey County LEPC and fire departments.

One of the largest industrial parks in the U.S., known as Tahoe Reno Industrial Center (TRIC) in Storey County, agrees to host the exercise. During the planning phase, Storey LEPC approached companies that have had a recent hazmat event or incident and asked if the company would like a role in the training exercise. It is like corrective actions without penalty. The goal was to exercise the local response agencies and to enhanced the company’s ability to handle facility emergencies in a unified command structure. 

Planning and Exercise

Also during the planning phase, the Storey County LEPC chair asked the team if they were interested in using an UAV, or a drone, during the exercise. Some consideration was given to operating a small quad copter inside the building but the owner had liability reservations.  

The exercise was changed to make it an outside spill from an off-loading vehicle using a through-the-wall delivery system. The quad copter operator specializes in filming events like weddings and other outdoor activities, so he is skilled in operations of the UAV.

On the exercise day, the team assembled the response agencies. During the classroom portion of the training, the participants were informed that they will use a quad copter as the IC sees fit.

The particular unit used is equipped with two cameras – one of which is a “GoPro.” In the planning phase of the exercise, it is decided that the IC or operations will not see results from the quad copter but will figure it out on the fly.

Once the didactic portion of the day was completed, the group started the “unannounced” portion of the exercise and the response agencies arrived on a timed sequence from a pre-determined staging area. The UAV is deployed on a trial run so the exercise evaluators/controllers would see what it provides. Once it landed, the exercise creators green light it to the IC.

It takes the IC and the quad copter operator about five minutes to determine how to deliver the real-time feed into a laptop at the IC vehicle for the IC to have a bird’s eye view.

The footage coming into the command post is incomparable to what the team has used in the past. As a municipal IC on wildland fires, the owner of All Clear Fire occasionally flew on a helicopter to perform quick recon of where a fire was headed, but even that was nothing like what he sees from the quad copter.

The bottom line is that the fire service operating in an industrial setting needs to consider how these devices can help during size-up under combat and non-combat situations alike. Even security can be enhanced with these devices.

Though there can be drawbacks such as contamination from hazardous materials, a flying ignition source or getting too close to a heat source, there is more to be gained on the positive side. Flying recon for the “missing man” can save precious minutes waiting for life saving rescue to occur.

UAVs over a certain size must be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration and there are restrictions (height limits) for use around airports. Visit the FAA Website (www.faa.gov) for more guidelines.

It is time for emergency responders to experiment and develop safe-use criteria of UAVs and share the lessons with other users. Using this technology in size-up offers an alternate method of protecting people and property.

After the Exercise

During the post incident analysis of the exercise, a plus/delta sheet recorded the UAV issues, and it was 90 percent favorable on the negative side battery life. The issue of about 40 minutes of flying identified on one battery is easily resolved by having extra batteries available.

Due to DHS security reasons, the footage shot during the exercise cannot be shared. However, if deploying a Level “A” team, it might be extremely beneficial to show them their target problem with UAV footage prior to entry.

Search “industrial fires and quad copters” on YouTube to view actual footage from other UAV flights.

Jim Powell is the owner of All Clear Fire Training and Consulting who specializes in Industrial Incident Command and Incident Safety Officer Training.