Expert Insight: Drones in the Fire Service

February 14, 2024

Chief Charles L. Werner (Ret.), Director of DRONERESPONDERS, analyses the integration of drones into the fire service, their critical role in fire response, and the advancements in drone capabilities that are shaping the future of public safety

All around the world, the fire service is implementing drone programs. In the US, there are now more than 5000 public safety drone programs according to research by DRONERESPONDERS. While drones are a clear value for the fire service, the statistics show that 70% are law enforcement, 25% are fire, and the remaining 5% is broken down between emergency management, emergency medical and search and rescue.

Law enforcement see the importance of drones on a daily basis because of the frequency and uncertainty of their responses. Fire service drone responses are more focused on working incidents like structure fires, wildfires, hazmat, major incidents and disaster responses.

Structure fires

Drones can do a number of things such as big picture overwatch of the incident showing fire involvement of initial structure, capturing exposure fires (unseen from the ground), thermal heat signatures, and location of apparatus placement.

The thermal view can show location and intensity of fire as well as heat signature on a roof that may reveal structural integrity issues which prevents firefighters from taking unnecessary chances. The thermal view also can see through smoke and be used to accurately direct water streams on to the fire. Drone videos and images can also be used for after action reports and training.


Wildfires are one of the areas where drones demonstrate numerous benefits. These benefits include the ability to identify the location, intensity speed and direction of the wildfire, and exposures endangered (people and property). Backfire operations to remove fuel ahead of the fire previously done by ground firefighters with drip lines can now be conducted through aerial drops of incendiary dragon eggs more quickly and larger areas.

As the wildfire is knocked down, thermal drone views can identify and locate remaining hotspots to reduce chances of rekindle. Additionally, drones provide damage assessment which is critical to understanding the human and property impact on a community. During catastrophic fires with major evacuations, this damage assessment has been shared by overlaying drone imagery through ESRI’s ARCGIS online to citizens helping them understand the status of their homes.

Drones offer analytical abilities as well both before and after a wildfire by using programs that can assess the fuel load at the urban-wildland interface to help mitigate this fuel load danger. After the fire is extinguished, analysis can provide the remaining fuel load on the forest floor to understand the future potential of wildfires.

The future holds much promise as drones are larger, can fly longer distances and carry heavier loads. Three of the most important future uses of drones in wildfires will be to evacuate firefighters in immediate danger, logistically move firefighting equipment, quick extinguishment response at incipient stage of fire and to conduct major extinguishment operations 24 hours a day through smoke inversions and keeping pilots from extremely dangerous situations.


HAZMAT responses have proven their worth time over time. One of the first departments to explore and demonstrate the importance of drones was the Southern Manatee FL Fire Rescue Department. First, they provide an immediate aerial big picture view, then they can be used to detect and identify released substances, can also focus in on the problem area to specifically determine the problem and determine tools needed.

There have been numerous incidents involving sulfur fires, fertilizer fires, highway accidents with spills, train derailments with spills/fire and many other incidents. Drones with thermal can also reveal invisible gaseous plumes, liquid levels in vessels, heat flame impingement and much more. Drones can do a great deal to assess hazmat incidents without putting firefighters in harm’s way.

Major incidents

These incident examples include major transportation accidents, mass casualty incidents, structural collapses, crane collapses, technical rescues as well as safety overwatch of large outdoor events. The aerial view provides a quick assessment of the magnitude of the incident resulting in the appropriate resources to safely and effectively mitigate the incident and to monitor progress of the response efforts.


Following disasters, drones are often the fastest way to assess “how bad is bad” and critical to know what resources may be needed from state/federal agencies and make those requests as quickly as possible. Drones can quickly reach difficult areas to access and identify people in need of rescue, areas flooded, roadways closed and impact to critical infrastructure.

Drones also be used to help with disaster recovery by calculating debris piles, monitoring removal of debris, clearing of roadways and overall restoration of community services. Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Teams have used drones with success during disasters to assess situations more safely and effectively.


  • Drone as a First Responder (DFR), where a drone is launched immediately upon receipt of a 911 call, usually arrives first and provides critical information to responding units. While this is mostly implemented by law enforcement, fire departments where DFR programs have been deployed should reach out to LE counterparts and request DFR for fire responses.
  • Tethered drones are showing value in early and easy deployment at early stages of fire, with power through the tether, there is no need to change batteries.
  • Drones increasingly being flown indoors, especially massive facilities for quick/safer assessments.
  • Drone programs are evolving into robotics programs (air, land and marine drone/robots). Several fire service early adopters are Austin TX Fire Department, York County VA Fire and Life Safety and City of New York Fire Department (FDNY).
  • Drones drop flotation devices to rescue distressed swimmers.

About the DRONERESPONDERS Public Safety Alliance

DRONERESPONDERS is the leading, largest nonprofit program focused on advancing the use of public safety drones, over 8700 members and participation from 89 countries. It provides free membership, resources and guidance for public safety organizations.

Chief Charles L. Werner (Ret.) served 48 years in public safety, served 37 years with the Charlottesville VA Fire Dept., the last ten years as fire chief. Charles presently serves as Director of DRONERESPONDERS and joined the Virginia Department of Aviation as aviation technology advisor to work in the areas of UAS, CUAS and AAM.

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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