Photos courtesy of Debbie Davis and the Austin Fire Department

Across the United States, more and more emergency response professionals are recognizing and understanding what kind of value and benefit Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) can bring to their departments and the people they serve. The force multiplier that drone technology represents for anyone working in law enforcement, search & rescue, and emergency response is something we’ve detailed from multiple perspectives, but professionals in this industry deal with very unique challenges when it comes to adoption.

First and foremost, emergency response professionals have to consider the public’s reaction to their use of the technology, and many departments have been forced to abandon their efforts to use drones due to negative public feedback. Additionally, officials in various departments often struggle to understand where and how the technology can be most effectively leveraged; it’s one thing to talk about potential but it’s quite another to quantify value. That’s why the efforts of organizations like the Colorado Center of Excellence are so important, and why they’ve highlighted the way in which departments like the Austin Fire Department (AFD) have approached adoption of drone technology. AFD is the first major metropolitan fire department in the country to obtain authorization to operate UAVs in the national airspace.

AFD has developed the first fire department robotics program in the country, called the Robotic Emergency Deployment (RED) Team; Assistant Chief Richard Davis is the founder of the RED Team. He has made an active effort to figure out how drones, as well as other unmanned robotics systems, can impact their ability to enhance firefighter safety and the effectiveness of their emergency response capabilities. Recently, Chief Davis was appointed by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) to represent them on the newly formed National Council on Public Safety UAS (NCPSU). The intent of this council is to advance public safety use of UAS through awareness, education, training, collaboration, best practices, FAA rule making, defining public safety requirements and general engagement. He continues to do everything he can to make the public aware of what his department is doing with robotics, in order to dispel any concerns or fear the public might have about the technology. His efforts in building the RED Team were recognized by the Texas Fire Chiefs' Association, which awarded him the Lone Star Achievement Award for establishing an innovative and progressive program that enhances a community’s fire and life safety service delivery.

Austin Fire Department Assistant Chief Richard Davis

Austin Fire Department Assistant Chief Richard Davis.

Photos courtesy of Debbie Davis and the Austin Fire Department

We caught up with Chief Davis to discuss how he first became interested in drone technology, the key to gaining public acceptance with how his department is using drones, what advice he has for other departments that might be looking to adopt the technology, and plenty more.


Jeremiah Karpowicz: Can you tell us a little bit about the Austin Fire Department? How big is the department, and how much area are you tasked to cover?

Assistant Chief Richard Davis: Like most fire departments, AFD is responsible for providing a multitude of services. This includes operations, aircraft firefighting and rescue, emergency prevention, community outreach, special operations, and educational services to name just a few.

Our emergency incident responses during calendar year 2016 totaled almost 82,000 calls, which breaks down as follows:

  • Medical: 55,211
  • HazMat: 2,445
  • Structure fires: 1,034
  • Other kinds of fires (i.e., dumpster, car, etc.): 2886
  • Rescues: 668
  • Other response types: 19,729

We have 46 fire stations and serve an area of 277 square miles with a population of 913,917. There are 1,147 authorized uniform firefighter positions.


When did you first become aware of the potential impact drones could have for your department? Was there a certain event or happening that helped you get a fuller understanding around what drones could do?

While attending the National Fire Academy in 2013, I first became interested in the concept of utilizing drones in emergency response. The publications on the Labor Day fires (September 4, 2011) in central Texas and the Bastrop Complex wildfire case study (May 2012) prompted me to investigate the possibilities of using UAVs to gain efficiencies in the damage assessment process. Due to the extended location of devastation, I thought that UAVs would be effective in managing time and distance to communicate resource needs. This coincided with me deciding to do a research paper on the subject for the National Fire Academy.

I took the time and did the research, and I’m grateful that the National Fire Academy allowed me to do the research. It gave me a lot more insight into the capabilities of UAVs and what they could do. I came away with some great knowledge, which I was able to use to consider how I could move this technology forward in my fire department.

One thing I noticed and gained insight on was why numerous police and fire departments, which were initially investigating this technology, were forced to shut down. Aside from funding and negative connotations associated with UAVs, I think the reasons were due to not being transparent and only having a one-dimensional approach to robotics technology. This is the reason why I took a multi-dimensional approach and lifted the veil from what we wanted to do. I wanted to make sure we were open and transparent with our whole process.


The transparency you talked about in terms of how you’re communicating what you’re doing with drones to the public is really important. What have been the results of that effort? How has the public reacted to your use of drones?

We’re grateful that, so far, there has been no negative public reaction toward the Austin Fire Department’s use of drones. We continue to make it a point to be transparent and communicate with our community. The Austin Fire Department’s RED Team website showcases all of our equipment and provides information about the team. As the technology changes and the mission expands, our website will go along in that same direction, providing additional information and keeping the community engaged.

image001When I created the RED Team in 2014, I wanted to ensure our citizens understood who we were and what we were about prior to us arriving on scene. We created a logo and website specifically designed for the RED Team. I wanted us to be transparent in every way possible. In addition, we were not one-dimensional (UAVs only) in our approach but multi-dimensional (maritime, ground, and air robotics). We want to explore the possibilities of all forms of robotics in assisting emergency responders.


In what ways does that multi-dimensional approach to the technology factor into these efforts?

There are two interesting factors associated with this multi-dimensional approach: one is public perception and the other is technological capability.

While doing my research, I discovered that the apprehensions around robotics technology were really centered on UAVs due to the military applications associated with the technology. Because of this, I think many citizens were conditioned to think of the technology in a certain way. This is associated with images and news reports from overseas of UAVs in action. In order to ease this fear, I thought we could redefine the image of UAVs by grouping them together with other robotics. We started looking at other technology such as maritime and surface robotics, which is how we got the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard (EMILY) and EVE. Grouping all of these robotics together was designed to lower the public’s negative perceptions against the use of UAV technology. Our message was simple: If we can use one form of robotics, why not the others?

I think that seeing surface and maritime robotics in action assisted community members with looking at UAVs differently. From being utilized in a military setting to more of a search and rescue type situation. This generates understanding and gets them a little more comfortable with drone deployment. This approach has been a great benefit in terms of redefining public perception, but it also opened up a powerful multi-dimensional response approach to each hazardous situation we come up against. For instance, if we have flood or water rescue victims, we deploy EMILY. In Central Texas we get a lot of flooding, so much so, that parts of our area have been nicknamed Flash Flood Alley. In and around Austin, there are a number of caverns where citizens have gone exploring and gotten lost. We could deploy surface robotics into these locations to get a visual and map out the area prior to our rescue workers entering these unknown environments.

This multi-dimensional approach has given us more opportunities to study and enhance firefighter safety and increase the effectiveness of our emergency response. In addition, robotics technology is a great way to engage the next generation of firefighters. It’s an excellent recruiting tool that not only opens up the hearts and minds of the millennial generation, but their parents and their associated peer groups, who are, in some cases, community leaders. Having open dialogue is what really helped us bring the level of anxiety down and allowed us to explore how these devices could coincide with incident command strategy and tactics.


Can you talk a little bit about how drones have specifically impacted command strategies?

UAVs give first responders reach and distance, thus enhancing the capability of rescue teams to see into the heart of a situation. This is especially important, because information can sometimes get lost or garbled when it’s passing from one person to another, especially in an emergency where things are fluid. As a firefighter, I’ve seen firsthand how trying to translate and provide the correct information back and forth to incident command can sometimes be challenging. There are instances where the information is confusing and/or someone misinterpreted it. This results in a lag time, asking for clarification and/or trying to decipher what was said. Adding a real-time visual element to this communication seems to offer a more definitive approach towards the correct reception of intended messages.

Let’s say that someone was outside your field of expertise and was tasked to be part of a damage assessment team. Do you think that individual could recognize all of the needed resources to repair the infrastructure as it relates to another department, let alone trying to describe the damage? When individuals are verbally reporting back to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on what they see, things sometimes get “lost in translation,” causing confusion with the realities of the situation. If drones were deployed, individuals sitting at the EOC familiar with an affected electrical structure, could see for themselves first-hand the damage and interpret what is needed for repairs. This saves time in getting a community back to its pre-incident state.

All of this is about trying to get a visual of what's going on. Utilizing drones, incident commanders and/or department heads can immediately see for themselves on what is needed and make the right decisions as it relates to the incident.


What can you tell us about the logistics of getting your program up and running, both from a regulatory and administrative perspective?

There were no difficulties associated with getting local officials to sign off on investigating our possible use of the technology. I think our approach toward exploring the capabilities assisted our efforts in getting the green light to move forward. The research I had already completed with the National Fire Academy and the partnering with educational institutions for additional research proved to be the logical route for exploring the proficiencies of the technology.

In terms of regulation, we were fortunate enough in the beginning to have a number of our RED Team members who already had private pilot licenses. This assisted us greatly with having a greater understanding of the FAA rules and regulations. Currently, we are flying under both Part 107 and a Certificate of Authorization (COA); the format we choose depends on the mission.


The fact that those city officials were ready to sign off on that usage as well as your Lone Star Achievement Award would seem to indicate you’ve gotten people on every side of the issue to see and understand how this technology can make a difference.

It was a great honor to accept that award; it felt like validation that we were moving in the right direction. I can tell you that it’s been a very long process to get here and we still have some miles to go. In the beginning, I couldn't get any phone calls returned. It seemed like everyone was afraid of the technology, even some members of my own department. I couldn’t get individuals to come to meetings and/or participate in flight demonstrations that I had set up on two different occasions. In late 2013, I started getting discouraged and wondered if I was seeing things wrong. If it wasn't for two individuals in my department, Lieutenant Drew Reyes and Firefighter Preston Curtis that offered me encouragement to continue to pushing the envelope, I might have backed off and let it go.

Now we have people calling us, looking at and understanding what we are trying to do with this technology. In some cases, they are willing to participate and/or offer assistance because we have been able to put it all into the proper context for them.


That ties into the last thing I wanted to ask you, which is about how other safety and emergency response officials might approach doing the same thing. What advice would you have for officials who want to utilize drones in the way you’ve been able to, but are unsure of how they should begin that process?

We have already assisted many public safety agencies across the nation with getting their UAV programs off the ground. The best advice I can give is to first build a case for utilizing the UAVs in their particular area. What works in Austin, Texas may not be the same for other communities. There are a lot of unique factors involved with launching a UAV program. You have to be mindful of your politics, people, and policies. Each of these affects the other. The best way to build your case is through research. Partner with a local educational institution and investigate the feasibility of using the technology in your area. Having that partnership and data will help ease apprehension and generate understanding on how the technology could benefit a community.

Also, you can’t discount the importance of marketing. Our website and grassroots community efforts—like posting signs in neighborhoods, utilizing social media, inviting traditional press outlets to demonstrations, and keeping our politicians in the loop—were all instrumental to our success. Being able to demonstrate return on investment is key to continued support of your program. At every opportunity, we invited people in to see what we were doing and how we were doing it.

This has eased potential issues associated with negative feedback and enabled us to be exposed to funding opportunities. Putting our program out in the public has opened up a number of avenues for us to pursue. Currently, we are working on a draft agreement to use our UAV technology with another city department in Austin. They will provide us with funding for purchasing more UAV equipment and we will provide them with visuals of their infrastructure, while at the same time providing our team members flight training time. It is a win-win situation for all.