MCP Insights

Thinking of Drones as First Responders is an Important Leap Forward

Posted on November 29, 2022 by Charles Werner

Unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones, have been slow to fulfill their potential to enhance emergency response. However, drones use has grown exponentially since 2016 to more than 5,000 public-safety agencies (from DRONERESPONDERS’ 2020 survey). Their use cases are limited only by one’s imagination, but situational awareness is where they shine.

Drones can be used to keep eyes on suspects who are fleeing law-enforcement officers, something that is quite advantageous because many jurisdictions instruct personnel not to engage in car chases for fear of accidentally injuring or killing innocent bystanders. They are highly maneuverable, so they can get into places that police helicopters and even foot personnel cannot, so they can let officers and incident commanders know what dangers are lurking just around the corner. Their stealth makes them ideal for supporting stakeouts.

There are plenty of applications in the fire service too. Drones can be dispatched as soon as an alarm sounds and arrive at a structure fire well in advance of apparatus to give incident commanders a head start on size-up. They can be equipped with all manner of payload. For example, they can be equipped with thermal-imaging cameras to detect where hotspots exist, in addition to finding people trapped inside the structure. They can be equipped with sensors to detect hazardous materials, again before personnel arrive, to ensure that they gear up properly and to guide the response when they arrive. They can be flown into the nooks and crannies of a building collapse to search for survivors. They can fly miles away to hover over a wildfire, to enable officials to better predict which way the blaze will turn next and whether it will intensify.

In a broadcast interview last year, Roxana Kennedy, chief of the Chula Vista (California) Police Department (PD), praised the situational awareness and de-escalation provided by drones.

“[They] provide real-time information to our officers while they're in the field … about what’s actually occurring,” Kennedy said. “Officers have the ability then to see, 'Is this an armed individual? Is this just someone pacing in the street? Do I really need to respond into the area, or would it be better for me to stay back?’ So, it gives them that real, critical information to make better decisions and be able to de-escalate situations so that everyone goes home safely.” Chula Vista PD created the “drone as a first responder” (DFR) concept, whereby drones are dispatched immediately upon a 911 call.

So, the reader might be asking, why isn’t every police and fire department flying drones every day to enhance emergency response? The answer is that, in some localities and states, laws and/or ordinances exist that limit drones use or prevent it entirely. These legal limitations are mainly driven by privacy concerns. There are basically two sets of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules that public safety can fly under while operating in the national airspace, i.e., limited flights within visual line of sight (VLOS) or beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). In order to fly longer distances to maximize the use of drones requires BVLOS operations. Consequently, BVLOS operations, especially DFR operations, require waivers — which historically have taken six months to a year for FAA approval.

But the BVLOS waiver process might be changing soon.

An effort has been underway for quite some time to get the FAA to start thinking of drones as first responders — because that is exactly what they are. In fact, under the FAA DFR operation, they almost always will arrive to an emergency scene well before the actual first responders to provide them with vital intelligence. For the last eight months, a national DFR working group and responders across the country have been working with other stakeholders to create a template that can be used by any public-safety agency to seek an FAA waiver to permit drones flights up to two miles (and possibly more) beyond visual line of site, provided that certain conditions are met. Without such a waiver, a public-safety agency only would be permitted to fly a drone for as far as it can be seen with the naked eye.

The template is a game-changer because it dramatically expedites the waiver process — it is designed to enable agencies to confirm compliance with the FAA’s conditions pertaining to drones use quickly and efficiently. The template was used earlier this year, unofficially, as a test case, and the agency was granted a waiver in about two weeks. Again, a waiver request typically can take six months to a year to play out, with the majority being much closer to the latter than the former.

The template has worked its way through the FAA’s lower levels and currently rests at the administration’s management level. We’re hopeful that the FAA will approve the waiver template by the end of the year — stay tuned.

Charles Werner is director of DRONERESPONDERS, which promotes public-safety use of drones. Previously, he was chief of the Charlottesville (Virginia) Fire Department and chair of the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM program. Email him at

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