ROD AMMON: Welcome to this edition of the IAAI’s CFITrainer.Net podcast. I think most of us have seen the media reports about the issue of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), known informally as drones, operated by civilians and the media interfering with fire suppression operations. Drones buzz the aircraft picking up and delivering water and fire retardants to wildfires. Drones have circled around active fire scenes recording footage of suppression operations, sometimes nearly colliding with aircraft fighting the fire. In several cases, including in Utah and California, fire officials have grounded firefighting aircraft due to the thread of collision with drones, allowing the fire to continue to burn until it was again safe to fly. These drone activities are prohibited by FAA rules that require drones to stay under 400 feet and keep clear of aircraft. But that has not stopped the drone pilots from breaking those rules.
The U.S. Forest Service started a public service campaign to educate the public, but still drones violate the rules and common sense. States are fighting back. In fact, some states have made it a crime to fly a drone over an active wildfire, but there are logistical challenges in finding the individuals piloting these drones, which could fly long distances away from their operators. The State of California is even offering a $75,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the operators who flew drones over the Lake Fire, the North Fire, and Mill 2 Fire of 2015.
There’s another side to this issue though. Like most technologies, there are positives and negatives for the fire service with regard to drones. Drones can also be a tool for the fire service and fire investigators to get a bird’s eye view of a scene, something that in the past was time consuming and resource intensive, requiring either a high aerial ladder or a helicopter callout. Now, an inexpensive drone remotely controlled by a trained first responder can gather critical evidence that can aid in an investigation of a structure fire or a wildfire.
To use this tool properly, emergency response agencies need to know the FAA regulations for operating drones by a public entity. New rules have taken effect as of August this year, and here’s what you need to know. You have two options: Number one, you can follow the FAA’s small UAS rule known as “Part 107”, or if you want to operate UAS for a government entity outside of these rules, you may apply for a blanket public Certificate of Authorization, a COA, which allows flight at or below 400 feet in Class G airspace nationwide, self-certification of the UAS pilot, and the ability to obtain emergency COAs under special circumstances do happen. To learn more, contact 9-AJV-115-UASCOA@faa.gov. That’s a long one. You can rewind a little bit to hear it. Public sector agencies can apply for a COA on the FAA website, and we have that link for you in the resources for this podcast.
Here are the major provisions of the new Part 107 regulations that have gone into effect as of this past August for UAS systems weighing less than 55 pounds and conducting non-hobbyist operations.
- The pilot must be at least 16 years old and have a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating or be directly supervised by someone with a certificate.
- The pilot must keep the UAS within visual line of sight.
- The pilot must conduct a preflight visual and operational check to ensure safety systems are functioning properly.
- Operations are allowed during daylight and twilight if the UAS has anti-collision lights.
- So that is a maximum altitude of 400 feet or within 400 feet of a structure.
- Your maximum groundspeed of can only be up to 100 mph or (87 knots).
- Flights over unprotected people on the ground who aren’t directly participating in the UAS operation are prohibited.
- And all drones under 55 lbs must be registered with the FAA.
You can read the provisions of Part 107 in the summary provided in the resources with this podcast. Again, a public entity can obtain a waiver to operate outside these rules.
Let’s take a few minutes to discuss how fire investigators can start using UAS technology in their investigative work. With us today is Bob Toth. He’s a certified fire investigator with the International Association of Arson Investigators, and he’s the president of IRIS Investigations, Inc. in Colorado. Welcome to the podcast, Bob.
BOB TOTH: My pleasure, Rod. Thank you.
ROD AMMON: So talk a little bit about investigative uses of UAS, specifically in the fire investigation world.
BOB TOTH: Sure. Well, first of all, to those unfamiliar with the acronym, it stands for unmanned aircraft systems. They may actually be more familiar with things like drones and quadcopters and things of that nature, but the truly technical term or proper term is the unmanned aircraft systems. The opportunity to see, on larger scenes, the burn patterns or perhaps in an explosion situation, you can see the blast pattern, which is helpful in analyzing the data, the patterns and information you see from the ground certainly is helpful and has been helping fire investigators for generations. But the elevated views in certain situations will certainly provide more data to help test your hypotheses and narrow down an origin of the fire. There’s also other things than just photography or video that can be taken from the air. There are other third-party applications and tools that can be attached to a UAS to create some demonstrative evidence or to do things such as identify or clearly show changes in elevation, which, in a situation like a wildland fire, can help explain fire patterns and movement.
ROD AMMON: Okay, so what does a fire investigator or his or her agency have to do to start using the technology or drones?
BOB TOTH: Well, as of August 29th of this year, 2016, the FAA came out with new rules called Part 107. Prior to that time, pilots or operators of UAS would have to get what’s called a Section 333 exemption. Speaking from personal experience, I had gone through that rather arduous, and, at times, expensive process, and as I got my 333 exemption, it also included becoming a licensed pilot, which I found a bit strange since you’re standing on the ground watching this thing fly above your fire scene anyways. I felt a little bit concerned about the necessity to become a pilot if I’m still standing on the ground operating this particular aircraft. But since that time, they’ve changed the rules, created Part 107, which makes it now much easier and simpler for a pilot in command or operator of an aircraft to get the necessary certifications and testing to fly a UAS for commercial purposes.
ROD AMMON: What other things – I mean I’m thinking as a pilot bringing some – bringing a drone over a fire scene, there are going to be things that I’m doing, lowering altitude, raising altitude, traveling to different areas. Can you talk a little bit about techniques and maybe a specific where you were looking for something that you found?
BOB TOTH: Sure. It’s – first of all, it’s important to remember that, with these types of tools, there are some specific rules. Prior to all of Section 333 and Part 107, we would typically fly in what was referred to as the hobbyist rules, and in fact, even today, any UAS operator can go out to a location, a park, and an open field any day of the week and fly under these hobbyist rules without anything less – without anything more than just having the craft registered with the FAA. It’s about a three-minute process, and it costs you about $5. But once you start using the tool for commercial purposes, taking photographs and things like that, you need that certification. You need to comply with Part 107, but with the technology that’s available out there and the digital photography and video equipment that may come already attached and integral to the aircraft, you don’t have to get above the ceiling that the FAA requires of your UAS. In fact, the FAA rules state that you cannot fly higher than 400 feet above ground level, and in my experience, I’ve never had to go above 200 feet to get within my frame of view or my shot from the camera, my fire scene. So the 400-foot ceiling is not an issue for most, if not all, fire scenes that you may come across.
ROD AMMON: So did you find yourself trying to get lower, closer to a scene?
BOB TOTH: Well, there have been a couple scenarios and examples and scenes that I’ve been involved in where we’ve had commercial structures. We’ve had collapse of the structure in certain parts of the building, and obviously, because of the compromise to the building, we couldn’t go in there right away, and there have been times when I have hovered over the scene and got the craft down low enough to where we can videotape or take photographs of the damage from the UAS and not compromise any investigator safety or other equipment trying to get in there to identify the safety hazards and the conditions we may have to work in or the tools and equipment we may need to render the building safe. So yes, I have dropped in low into some of the collapse zones to get some good images of what we may need to deal with in a building.
ROD AMMON: So this is a different type of evidence. One of the things I wanted to talk to you a little bit about is how photos and video taken by a pilot who is not connected to the actual vehicle as evidence, how they’re preserved. How is the process of documentation dealt with?
BOB TOTH: Oh, it’s really no different than any of the video or photographs you take with your DSLR or any digital video camera you may use from the ground. Speaking again from experience, my typical procedure is, because I have enough to do, concentrating to keep my craft where I want it and flying it in a safe environment, I typically fly using just my 4K video function on the plane. As I’m circling the building or looking at certain portions of the building, it’s constantly recording video 4K quality, and the reason I like that is because then I can just capture frames from the video if I needed a particular still image of it. Now, the downside of that is you could be looking at anywhere from three to 12 minutes of video and only find one small section that you need, i.e. it’s all raw video and you’re looking for a particular viewpoint of the fire damage. So what I have done in the past is I’ve taken one of those frame shots or I’ve taken a few stills from the video and used it as part of my analysis and part of my report writing, but at the same time, I’ve saved all the raw video, so if someone wants to come back and take a look at all that raw video, they’re more than welcome to do it. So it’s all saved and preserved the same way as I would say of any DSLR photos or digital video that I take from the ground.
ROD AMMON: One thing I’m thinking of, and you know that I get involved in a lot of audio and video, I’m thinking of big files, and there’s a lot more than just having this drone and being able to know how to operate it. When you get back and you’ve been shooting 4K for that much time, tell me a little bit about your process. Share with some other folks what you needed to make this a productive part of your business.
BOB TOTH: Well, the 4K video, as you know, is they are large files, and they do require a computer that can handle that size of a video and create smooth video, at least have it somewhat enjoyable, if you will, while watching it on your computer. A typical laptop of maybe even one year or two years ago or even a desktop, you may notice, if you don’t have a good video card, that it’s going to be choppy and it’s going to be frustrating to watch, and it may freeze up. So you’re going to need some post-production equipment that can handle 4K video. Quite honestly, it’s an investment, but it’s a smaller investment than the UAS itself, again the same type of things you would be using to capture a frame from the video. If you put your company logo in the corner of the video or anything like that, all of that stuff should be documented, the processes you went through to create that final product, and at the same time, keeping the raw video available in case anyone wants to examine it.
ROD AMMON: All right, so if you’re giving some recommendations to a single fire investigator or a public sector agency of how to start – telling them how to start, regard to the technology and compliance with the new regulations, give them some advice.
BOB TOTH: I would look at the various types of equipment out there. Identify what you want to be able to do with it. If you want to take video, if you want to take still images, consider whether you want a craft that can carry a payload of perhaps your current video or digital photography equipment, or do you want the video and digital photography integrated into the craft itself. My recommendation would be to look in that direction. If you’ve got a craft that already has digital photography and video equipment integral and integrated into the craft, you don’t have to worry about increasing your payload or lifting more weight than the craft may be designed to. It’s already in there. Take a look at the control system, the navigation system, and the electronics.
Nowadays, some of these crafts are absolutely amazing with the GPS technology and the controllers and the way you operate the craft. Some of these crafts, you can – it’ll bring up a Google Map image of where you’re at, at the time you initiate operations. You can actually draw a flight pattern on the Google Map, and the craft will follow that flight pattern. Some of the technology – and this may come in handy with your SOPs that you should develop and things like that – the navigation technology has virtually black box technology where, after a flight, you can review all of the systems post flight to see if – for instance, if you have some sort of incident where you have to bring the craft down immediately because of some sort of power problem.
This technology will allow you to review that information and be able to identify problems that you may have had with the craft or during operation and things like that. So I would recommend to anyone considering this technology is, one, to do your homework. Identify what you want to do or what you think you should be able to do with it, and then search for the equipment that is going to allow you to do it. It’s not an inexpensive process or procedure. I’ll forewarn you there. It – there is a learning curve with being able to operate the aircraft. Make sure that you comply with all of the FAA requirements, and the first thing, right out of the box, would be to register the craft with the FAA.
As I said earlier, it’s a $5 fee, and about a three-minute process online, and essentially what they do is they issue you a unique serial or N-number that you attach to the craft. Just like every other piloted aircraft in the country, it has an identification number on it, and then get some training. Find someone that has used the craft. Typically, if you purchase it from a reputable dealer or manufacturer of these types of things, nothing like on eBay or anything like that, they always offer some sort of flight training. There’s certainly a number of organizations out there that can help you. A lot of your local radio-controlled aircraft clubs are certainly around all over the country that can help you with that, and before you bring it out to the fire scene, to start putting it to work for you, make sure you’re very comfortable with its operations and safety procedures. You can start right away to work on getting your Part 107 certification, and when all those things come together, you’re ready to go.
ROD AMMON: All right. One thought that – I’m sitting here saying we’re talking about money, and you and I both know technology costs change all the time. I also know you’re a real meticulous person, and I’ve see the kind of equipment and the way that you gear yourself up. Thinking about a range of cost for somebody who’s either private sector or public sector, if they wanted to put together a budget, what do you think it is these days, the combination of the equipment that’s going to go airborne, and the post-production video?
BOB TOTH: Well, that’s a good question. I would say, as you look at the craft with the type of technology and navigation systems you need and you want – you would probably want to buy extra batteries for it, a good robust case to keep it clean and safe and protected as you transport it, you could be look – along with the cost of training, certification, testing, things like that, you could be looking anywhere from $5-$10,000.
ROD AMMON: Okay. It sounds awful reasonable for something that can be an incredibly valuable tool, that maybe on one scene could help you figure something out that could save a whole lot more money than that.
BOB TOTH: You’re absolutely right. It’s not a tool that you would use on every scene, but when you get to those scenes that you know it could be helpful, you’re absolutely right. It could – it’s a reasonable investment in time and training.
ROD AMMON: And in the public sector, there’s pressure on budget, well, in both private and public sectors. So I just wanted to give people an idea of what they might be going after for a budget to do something like this.
BOB TOTH: And I can also say that in the five or six years that I have been involved with these types of tools, the ability to control and navigate and use the tool in the way that fire investigators typically would use the tool in a fire scene investigation has gotten considerably easier. The control of the craft, the GPS technology, the safety, the fail-safes that they’ve got built into the crafts now certainly reduce the stress, if you will, of operating your $5-$10,000 investment over a fire scene.
ROD AMMON: What about weather? What about the location you live in the country? I mean you’re in Colorado. Do you deal with – when you’re thinking about making this purchase or when you’re thinking about getting involved, is there any light you can shed on – is the decision going to change? Have you dealt with wind? I mean…
BOB TOTH: Well, sure, yeah. The – in fact, the conditions you would fly a UAS or the considerations you make in flying a UAS are really no different than the considerations you may make in flying a fixed-wing aircraft, a single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft. Wind certainly plays a big role, and again, depending on the type of craft, the size of a craft you buy, certain pieces of equipment can – are much easier to fly in windy conditions than others. The particular piece of equipment I’ve got, I’ve used it in 15-mph winds, gusting up to 20 mph, and that’s about as much as I want to do, quite frankly. But you would take the same precautions and considerations as you would flying a regular fixed-wing aircraft. You obviously – well, maybe I shouldn’t say obviously, but you certainly don’t want to take an aircraft that is powered by lithium ion batteries and all the high-end electronics, you certainly don’t want to fly it in wet or rainy conditions. That may seem obvious to some, but not to all. And most – in fact, most of your manufacturers’ recommendations and operation manuals strictly address that, talk about wind speeds and weather conditions and rain and stuff like that. You just don’t want to fly in certain conditions like that. I take particular notice to the wind.
There are some third-party applications and there’s some apps out there that give you weather conditions specific for UAS operation, including magnetic fields that may compromise your communications and things like that, and it’ll let you know if – where you’re at because it locates you with a GPS that it’ll give you a window of time where the conditions are optimal for flight operations, and at the same time, it also gives you a timeframe when conditions are not good, and then UAS operations should not be conducted. I personally like to get to a scene very early in the day before winds kick up or rains come in and things like that. It’s much calmer in the morning, and quite frankly, there’s fewer people around, too. Those are other safety considerations you have to have when you fly a UAS. And one of the other things I’d like to tell the listeners is if they are – as they move forward with investigating this, the FAA has got a website, faa.gov/UAS, and it talks about all of the requirements to comply with Part 107.
It also has a list of suggested study materials, everything from the airmen certification standards to the “Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge” because in order to fly commercially, you do have to take a test with the FAA. It’s a 60-question written test. You also have to pass a background investigation by the TSA and a few other things, but trust me; it’s a far less arduous process than the prior Section 333. And this particular rule, this Part 107, allows you to fly under certain conditions, which specifically are a 400-foot ceiling, and you have to maintain a visual line of sight, which most, if not all, fire scene investigations, your UAS will maintain a – you’ll maintain a visual line of sight. Some of the other uses for these types of aircraft around the country involve autonomous flight where you could be flying miles away from your control, but that’s certainly not typical of a fire scene investigation.
ROD AMMON: I’m very grateful, and I think a lot of other people will for your sharing the information you’ve learned, Bob. I know when I went out looking for people to talk to about this, your name kept coming up, and so what the heck? We had to give you a call, and again, appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about this emerging technology and how it relates to the federal regulations. Once again, the president of IRIS Fire Investigations, Bob Toth, and a certified fire investigator with the International Association of Arson Investigators. Thanks for your time again, Bob.
BOB TOTH: My pleasure, Rod. Have a good day.
ROD AMMON: You too. Be well. And now for the IAAI news. Let’s give the office a call.
KATE: IAAI, Kate speaking.
ROD AMMON: Hi Kate. This is Rod Ammon calling on behalf of CFITrainer.Net. You got a moment?
KATE: Certainly do. For you, I do.
KATE: A lot, absolutely a lot. We’re getting ready to put on a beautiful 40-hour Fundamentals of Fire Investigation down in Huntsville, Alabama with our partner, ATF, and the class is almost completely filled, so we are doing that next month. And that’s going to be fabulous because they’ve got that new facility, as I’ve said before, so that’s most recent. We have four – I’m sorry – Evidence Collection Technician classes going on between now and the end of the year, so if anyone out there needs to do the practicum, just give me a call, and we can sign you up to one of the classes. Also, we’re doing an Expert Witness Courtroom Testimony class, again down in Huntsville. What else? Let’s see. The Complex Fire for the Insurance Industry is going strong. That will be in November, and that class is almost completely filled. That’s back by popular demand, again another one in Huntsville. So we’re down south this – until the end of the year it seems like.
ROD AMMON: So when somebody wants to find out a little bit more or they want to register, what do you want them to do?
KATE: Well, we’d like them to go on our website because everything is there, but if they find that they can’t locate what they want to find, they can always call us here at the office.
ROD AMMON: We’re going to try to do this on a regular basis, so we hear from you guys actually what’s going on because training’s pretty dynamic.
KATE: Right, and like you said, we would like to hear back from our members because we don’t know how well or how not well we’re doing if they don’t let us know.
ROD AMMON: I am very grateful for your time.
KATE: You’re welcome, sir, any time.
ROD AMMON: There was one other person I wanted to speak with, and that was Deborah Keeler. Would she be around?
KATE: Hold on one moment, and I’ll see if she is in.
ROD AMMON: Thanks very much, Kate.
ROD AMMON: So we appreciate Kate transferring us over, and I’m on the phone now with Deborah Keeler. Deborah, we told people last month that we were going to give them an update not only in training but in some of the things that you’re working on related to partnerships and other news in the IAAI. What’s up?
DEBORAH KEELER: Lots of exciting things are going on right now. The most exciting for me is the collaboration over the last few years with our work with the Insurance Commission on Arson Control. ICAC is a organization with a very similar mission to the IAAI, but instead of members, they have corporate members, company members, and at the ITC in Las Vegas in April 2017, ICAC will be joining the IAAI in presenting a two-day insurance track.
ROD AMMON: Nice. So that does two things I guess. One, it gets us more involved with some people we’ve been working with for years, and at the same time, it’s more convenient for people on both sides, insurance and in fire investigation, to get together and network./p>
DEBORAH KEELER: Absolutely. It not only makes things easier, it allows us to share resources instead of doubling the efforts for the same resources for the networking opportunities, for the fire investigators and the insurance community to come together are really exciting, but also to provide training for not only fire investigators but fire loss professionals.
ROD AMMON: Got it. Registration will be coming up in the near future for any of you that are interested in joining us in Las Vegas. So Deborah, I also heard from Kate that there are some things happening in Alabama, and that relates to our partnership and I think also an award this month.
DEBORAH KEELER: Coming up in November, we will be featuring our Complex Fire Investigation for the Insurance Company class. It’s a weeklong program held at NCETR, National Center for Explosives Training, in Huntsville, Alabama, and this has been a long time, probably close to a 25-year collaboration with the ATF. We’re real excited with the program. Following up with our relationship with the ATF, the IAAI was very honored to be given an award this past August in Washington, D.C. by the ATF. The IAAI received the Honor Award. This is given to those non-ATF employees or organizations for assisting the ATF in achieving their mission in investigation, and our executive team and our director of government affairs, Steve Austin, and our advocacy chairman, Roger Krupp, as well as President Codding, First Vice President Bennett, Second Vice President Moylan, and Past President Heenan were all on hand in Washington, D.C. to get the award, which was exciting.
ROD AMMON: Well, you’re doing real well with names. I’ll tell you, you could handle the Academy Awards. I couldn’t.
DEBORAH KEELER: Well, I don’t know about Academy Awards, but definitely the IAAI Who’s Who. I’m real familiar with them.
ROD AMMON: Well, we appreciate the time. Is there anything else before we move on and close up this podcast that you wanted to mention or say to the folks out there?
DEBORAH KEELER: One more item that I wanted to mention was the NFPA and IAAI agreement to develop joint training coming up in early 2017. As we all know and are anticipating, the NFPA 921 update is going to be published the last month or so of 2016, and we have come to an agreement with NFPA, and we’ll be putting on a one-day 921 update in conjunction with and cooperation with the National Fire Protection Association. This is really exciting news. Throughout the fire investigation industry, we know that NFPA 921 is the guide for fire investigation, and IAAI, we use 921 and 1033 as the minimum standards for all of our training and our programs.
So being able to partner with that entity who publishes this important document in fire investigation and be able to reach out to our enhanced chapters and all of our different chapters to schedule a one-day program and have a representative from 921 or 1033 part of the class as well as a representative from NFPA, we think this is a great opportunity, and I believe our members are going to be really excited with the pricing that we have for this one-day program.
ROD AMMON: So another great reason why people should be making sure that they get an international membership to the IAAI. I mean not only do they have all of the member benefits that Kate had mentioned before that can be listed – that are listed up on Fire Arson, they’re part of this network that really runs fire investigation in the United States and around the world.
DEBORAH KEELER: Absolutely.
ROD AMMON: Well, I appreciate your time.
DEBORAH KEELER: My pleasure.
ROD AMMON: I hope you’re doing well, and we’ll see you real soon. I think mid year is coming up in November.
DEBORAH KEELER: Around the corner.
ROD AMMON: All right, thanks again for your time. We’ve been talking with Deborah Keeler, the executive director of the International Association of Arson Investigators.
DEBORAH KEELER: Thanks Rod.
ROD AMMON: Well, I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast. That’s it for today. We’re very grateful to everybody who helps make the podcast possible. Thanks for your time today as you’ve listened to what’s going on in the IAAI and learned, hopefully, a little bit about what’s new in the drone world. This is Rod Ammon for CFITrainer.Net and the International Association of Arson Investigators.
Know Before You Fly (FAA Rules for UAS operation)
Rules for Public Entities Operating a UAS
Summary of Part 107
How To Apply for a COA
New Rules for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems
Register Your Drone
Drones Impede Wildfire Efforts
As wildfire season ramps up, nearby drones are becoming a problem again
Drone flying over forest fire diverts planes, costs US Forest Service $10K
$75,000 in rewards offered to catch operators who flew drones above fires
Get caught flying a drone over a Utah wildfire and go to prison