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Reach for the Skies

With all of the stories of A1 and computer driving cars, the concept of drones being used to help deliver emergency rescue procedures to victims may seem to be a bit of science-fiction, but it is AND CAN BE a lifesaving reality. Although the concept of using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), more commonly called drones, is used extensively in some countries, most of the United States has been slow to grasp the technology. Indeed, most people believe drones are only used by the military or as toys for the hobbyist.

In November 2019, the Department of Homeland Security’s National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) assessed small, commercially available drones for priority needs of first responders through its First Responder Robotic Operations System Test (FRROST) program. The Los Angeles Fire Department has been using drones for a few years to help search out wildfires; a North Carolina county has been using underwater drones to search out hazards; and the New York State Preparedness Training Center in Oriskany has been conducting UAS training of Health and Homeland participants and first responders since 2017. As of May 2019, over 450 first responders have been trained in public safety UAS operations in Oriskany.

Potential uses for UAS in EMS include: search and rescue efforts, assessing damage and hazards, conducting hazardous material response, providing eyes over crowded situations to provide care where needed, and potentially delivering life-saving medical supplies several minutes before an ambulance’s arrival. A mock test over a busy municipality (Brooklyn, NYC) found that a drone could deliver a defibrillator several minutes before an ambulance could maneuver through the crowded streets. If the drone is equipped with a two-way communication and a camera, a person on-scene could be talked through using the defibrillator, an epi-pen, or other immediate emergency care even before the professionals get there and when mere minutes can make a difference in survival, well, you know the rest.

While “flying a drone” for fun may seem easy for the average hobbyist, the requirements for first responders to fly for public safety operations and emergency response is quite a bit more regulated, understandably so. To be an Unmanned Aircraft System pilot an individual must take and pass the Federal Aviation Agency’s (FAA) part 107, special flying operations and be properly certified by the government agency as well as receiving ongoing training. The pilot must know how to use special maps and graphs to navigate over various terrain and, in some cases, building structures, and they need to understand wind speed and other potential hazards, especially airports. There is also a difference in flying a drone within the pilot’s sight and flying it “blind” or out of view. The sponsoring agency must apply for a COA (Certificate of Authorization) for the area in which the drone would be used.

Currently most American cities do NOT permit drone usage because of the congestion and buildings. Another stumbling block is HIPPA as many of the applications will record and store flight/action details and provisions need to be made to secure this information in a safe manner. It’s also advisable for an agency that uses drones in responses to belong to some kind of an alert system to let government officials, law enforcement, and the public know when there is a drone in the air to reduce the potential for panic and interference. There are companies who offer software systems and can help the agencies receive necessary documentation, help maintain cyber security, be part of alert systems, and help provide access to topography and knowledge of potentially restricted airspace.

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