London Fire Brigade’s drone capability: past, present and future

Words: Lee Newman, LFB Drone Team Manager at London Fire Brigade

London Fire Brigade (LFB) looked into and implemented a drone capability mainly based on recommendations following the tragic events of the Grenfell Tower fire. From 2017 to 2019 the team and capability was built based on research into what other fire and rescue services were operating at the time and also how the various assets were deployed, whether by dedicated vehicles or by firefighters on fire appliances.

The LFB drone team quickly grew to be a busy and integral part of fire service operations, providing situational awareness to incident commanders and giving information not previously available to help bring fires to a safer, quicker conclusion. During this time, we investigated what other roles the drone could carry out. We looked at incidents where they hadn’t been present and – thinking outside the box – discussed how drones could be used to improve the response to similar incidents in the future.

Fire escape hoods

Fire escape hoods, which had also come into service mainly after the Grenfell recommendations were made, are usually deployed by fire crews in BA sets. However, in a scenario involving people stuck on balconies or rooftops in thick smoke, out of the immediate reach of aerial ladder appliances or fire crews that had a long commute to reach them, we wondered whether drones might offer an alternative, improved deployment method.

We decided to test the theory and fixed a fire escape hood onto a drone with a dropping mechanism; the idea would be to fly the drone into a balcony to drop the hood to the person in distress. This was successfully carried out in various training exercises. In addition, we used a second drone to utilise the speaker function to relay the donning instructions to the person needing the fire escape hood.

This capability then led onto the idea of dropping buoyancy aides to people in water-related incidents, which was tested successfully at the Lee Valley White Water Centre. The buoyancy aide deployed by the drone kept the casualties above water and the drone could then help track their path down the river to help direct the water rescue technicians to the correct location.

3D/4D mapping

When COVID hit the UK, in March 2020, the drone team concentrated on day-to-day operations, to keep the training of crews going the best we could and to make sure we were always available when needed.

During this period I looked into 3D/4D mapping software options and had numerous online meetings with various suppliers to determine how LFB could take advantage of the software. The main advantage identified was the digital mapping of high risk buildings and using these maps to build models, which would help teams to train either at stations or via a VR delivery system. The option to make 3D/4D computer models using images captured after a fire was another option, these could be used by fire investigation teams for reports and investigations or by crews or recruits for training purposes.

Other uses of data capture software vary, including HazMat mapping or in USAR incidents at which you could, for example, use the sophisticated tools within the software to measure building walls then provide the USAR technicians with dimensions to build shores without having to get close to it, thus keeping them safe, out of the hazard zone, until the shores are put in place.

Gas detection

Alpha Geo Sniffer 4D on the M300.

When life started to return to normal in 2021, we again went back to trying to expand what we could achieve as a team and what roles the drone could carry out within the fire service world.

While on a USAR exercise, a team was tasked with entering a confined space to undertake a HazMat sweep using a gas detector. As is standard practice, this took a team of two and a whole host of safe systems of work to implement. I spoke to a few scientific advisors and HazMat officers to determine whether a drone undertaking this task was a feasible option.

To deploy a gas monitor using a drone, to undertake this function, we came up with the idea of attaching a gas monitor to a purpose-built GoPro bracket for the Mavic and using the camera to read the display; for additional protection we added a cage to protect the drone while flying indoors.

Testing showed that we could use this set-up for internal or external incidents and that, after again consulting the experts, it was determined that the prop wash (the disturbed mass of air produced by the drone’s propellers) wouldn’t alter the gas detector read out. This is still a work in progress and we are still closely working with the advisors to work through all possible scenarios.

We then took this work a step further and investigated what was on the market for industrial and commercial companies for the HazMat role and discovered a device called the Alpha Geo Sniffer 4D. We held an event in Essex, in late 2021, which brought fire and police services together for a demonstration on its uses and applications; we also showcased the smaller drone we had designed for smaller incidents, which was well received by all in attendance.

Plans for 2022

With 2022 now looking to be business as usual, the ambitions of LFB’s drone team are to further explore the possibilities of our drone capability.

Getting the hazmat drone capability into service is our main goal for this year and we are planning to have further demonstrations and testing days later this year to make sure that we cover all eventualities, ensuring other police, fire and HART teams can make use of it within their own teams or use the research and learning to bolster their own capabilities.

Another project we aim to look into (and hopefully trial this year) is the tethered drone option. This had never really been on our wish list, solely due to the way we operate and the limitations of tethered solutions, however, the end user for this will be the fire boat and a tethered drone option would allow the boat crew to give aerial thermal and optical coverage without waiting for the land-based drone team to attend. A couple of years ago we demonstrated the use of drones on the boat, showing night-time footage of exercises we had undertaken, which was well received, with good feedback, and a possible case for a drone on a boat was raised. Fast forward to the present day and we now have a solution to be able to do this, which will require training up a few operators on each watch then undertaking a trial to provide outcomes for a possible full-time capability.

Improved firefighter safety

The last area we aim to cover this year in more depth is using drones in a USAR environment. At various exercises at the Fire Service College last year we used the drone for initial size up and exploration purposes, the main aim being around firefighter safety and the option to assess an incidents before potentially putting responders in danger. A year ago we utilised a drone on a live USAR incident at which we had to check for casualties and building damage at an explosion in a house. The top floor was too high to see inside and no aerial was in attendance at that stage so the IC asked for the drone to be flown to have a look inside the house and help build an assessment of the incident.

There are more exercises planned this year and so work to include internal flying, scene assessment and 3D mapping will continue to increase our depth and knowledge of flying at these types of incidents.