Creating a drone program requires agencies to potentially go through the FAA's Part 107 regulatory process. - Photo by Todd McNeal.

Creating a drone program requires agencies to potentially go through the FAA's Part 107 regulatory process.

Photo by Todd McNeal.

As part of technology's astonishing pace forward is the embrace by the fire service and industry of unmanned aircraft as a tool to augment inspection and fire protection.

The key to beginning a drone program in any organization or agency is understanding the core capabilities of these tools and how this technology contributes to a safer, smarter, and more efficient fire protection program.

Three fundamental areas of efficiency that drones can bring to daily operational workflow include:

  • Improved situational awareness and risk exposure reduction to responders during evolving incidents
  • Training and skills documentation used in after action reviews
  • Pre-planning, routine inspection and photo documentation of an operation for continual analysis, and hazard identification.

These are just a small sample of the possibilities that drone technology integrated into your daily operations can realize in improving your efficiencies and overall safety.

Two Paths Forward

Once your organization acknowledges the power of this support tool and arrives at consensus for implementation, another set of questions must be answered.

  • Does the entity choose to certify the program through the Federal Aviation Administration's Part 107 pilot's certification process for small unmanned aircraft?
  • Does the entity want to apply for a certificate of authorization from the FAA that allows for exemption from Part 107?

This certification process is so new and changing so fast based on technological developments that this can be a difficult question. Let's break the two options down in a side-by-side analysis.

First, although challenging, completing the Part 107 process brings a much higher degree of standardization to a fledgling drone program. This is accomplished with structured training materials and FAA testing of your pilots.

This option may be more appealing because the compliance issues and evaluation methods are already defined by a third party. An added benefit of this process is that the testing process has been vetted, and your organization can rely on published FAA training standards.

The program's establishment and growth are solely based on individuals dedicated to the process who study and pass the exam. If they're not engaged individuals who are willing to put in the time and energy to complete the pilot testing process, then the program will never leave the ground.

This approach will be most effective if the agency administrator clearly explains the time requirement and testing process, giving students the time to study and test effectively. 

An individual interested in establishing a drone program has the second option of applying for a certificate of authorization under what the FAA defines as public aviation operation limited to public safety organizations.

Two Key Benefits of a Drone Program

 - Photo by Todd McNeal.

Photo by Todd McNeal.

Although this is more difficult for the agency administrator, the upfront benefits of that added work can pay large benefits. Two benefits include:

  • The ability to tailor the training and certification system to your operation and UAV missions based on your agencies' workflow.
  • Building a training program that lets the agency administrator implement unique changes to the evolving need for missions and pilot proficiencies; unique emergency operations specific to your industry missions; and geographic constraints.

The process of applying for a COA is subject to change as determined by the FAA. The approval process for a COA is much easier to obtain for a public safety agency that can demonstrate the need and administrative oversight to conduct safe public safety operations.

It's relatively easy to research the requirements from a variety of sources including the FAA site and third-party vendors that can assist in the application process, offering guidance and direction regarding the critical elements needed to complete and submit to the FAA.

It requires significant work to produce the materials necessary along with submitting confirmation letters in support and specific policy/oversite documents in your application package. 

Considering Pilot Training

The best balance for any agency is to begin with every pilot interested in flying becoming certified through the Part 107 pilot certification. Once that hurdle has been cleared, then evaluate if your specific program would be eligible for a COA and whether that individual program identification and approval from FAA is a benefit to your agency.

This is the safest path for any organization to pursue because it combines FAA pilot training standardization and the ability to customize your future program covered by a COA. In our litigious society, there is no doubt agency administrators of any new unmanned aircraft program should consider legal protection of their pilots and group.

Having each of the pilots complete and maintain their Part 107 training increases standardization and potential insulation for legal trouble. It's far more difficult to explain compliance with regulations through the filter of a completely customized program, even if approved by the FAA through a COA.

The availability of modern technology should be considered by groups because of increased efficiency, safety, and support for critical decision-making. However, I would caution any individual interested in this emerging technology to research and speak with subject matter experts before investing a significant amount of money and energy.

Todd McNeal, fire chief -

Todd McNeal, fire chief

The path to safe and successful drone flight is rapidly emerging and, like any rapidly expanding activity, is subject to change. The agencies involved are learning along the way as well. Don't forget that the rate of development and implementation demonstrated in the private sector is difficult if not impossible to match from the public sector.

The future I see is a collaborative one — with the increase of private and public agency partnerships — that improves the development and implementation of emerging technology. This action of integrating improves all our lives and increases the safety of operations.

Todd McNeal is a 28-year veteran of the fire service, currently serving as the chief of Twain Harte Fire in Tuolumne County, California. He has a diverse background in wildland and structural fire management and suppression and has been serving as a group supervisor on a federal Type II Incident Management Team for more than 15 years.