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How public safety agencies leveraged UAS during recent natural disasters

12 Feb 2019 2:06 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

Editor's note: This article is from the International Public Safety Association’s UAS eBook

By Lawrence Nolan Ph.D., Member of IPSA’s UAS Committee

The capabilities and missions that an unmanned aircraft system can provide to public safety agencies continues to increase as this emerging technology produces lesson learned and novel approaches to response with increased use in disasters. In a disaster or emergency incident, responders are exposed to hazardous environments or unable to gain timely access to a location to deal with the situations they confront. The UAS, with various types of sensors attached, allows the responders to initially remain clear of the hazards or provide a timely perspective of the incident to gain situational awareness. In a 2015 report on the use of UAS for disaster response and relief operations, responders to 11 disasters around the world from 2011-2015 used UAS to perform surveillance and mapping, search, structural inspection or estimation of debris. 

The use of UAS by emergency response organizations across the nation has increased. A 2017 Bard College article identified that approximately 910 state and local public safety agencies have acquired the technology in the U.S.

Earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires

Natural hazard incidents such as an earthquake, tornado, hurricane or wildfire may significantly impact a community with a variety of destructive outcomes. They may damage infrastructure in such a way that exposes hazardous materials, explosives or radiation to the environment. Public safety agencies responding to these dangerous conditions could use an UAS to identify the scope of the situation and develop an incident action plan to address the hazardous condition. This would provide public safety officials with critical information to reduce the exposure of first responders to the hazardous environment as the hazards are addressed.

In a March 2018 Vox news story, disasters in the U.S. have included Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, California Wildfires to include the Thomas Fire, Western Wildfires and tornados in the Midwest. Each of these natural disasters provide an opportunity for expanding the use of a UAS by public safety agencies. The option of various payloads that may be carried by the UAS, provides a range of alternative missions that can be used.


A September 2017 post in Drone Life, reported the response use of UAS in Hurricane Harvey for damage assessment and search and rescue, while UAS usage in Hurricane Irma included aerial surveys and damage assessment. This demonstrates the versatility of UAS with its various payloads.

  • Flooding. The flooding in the Houston area was so vast that searching for victims that needed rescue was an urgent requirement. The use of UAS increased the capability of public safety agencies to efficiently scan large areas and locations that were difficult to access.
  • Damage assessment. The need for damage assessment after both hurricanes provided another opportunity for the UAS to be well suited to perform this mission. The UAS can provide an overall perspective of an area as well as providing close-up images of damage to critical infrastructure.
  • Infrastructure assessment. In a February 2018 article, the Daytona Beach Police Department in Florida used UAS for pre and post Hurricane Irma impact for infrastructure assessment and route assessment and clearance. For Daytona Beach officials to quickly receive financial compensation from FEMA for the disaster declaration, it had to provide evidence of the status of infrastructure pre and post hurricane impact. The DBPD used UAS to survey the infrastructure prior to Hurricane Irma and after the impact to identify the extent of the damage.
  • Transportation route clearance. The DBPD also used UAS after the hurricane to identify and prioritize transportation route clearance requirements. Another type of natural hazard incident provided an opportunity for the UAS to be used during the response.


A December 2017 article, reported that the Los Angeles Fire Department used UAS to support the response to a California wildfire by determining the advance of the fire and also to identify hot spots that needed to be extinguished. An infrared sensor payload on a UAS would provide the capability to locate hot spots in a wildfire despite the smoke or trees covering the area. This capability provided the LAFD with valuable information to track the advance of the fire and to locate those areas that may not be fully extinguished and require assets to eliminate the hot spots. This is another example of the range of missions that can be performed by an UAS with different payloads. 

Disasters caused by natural hazards may also lead to conditions where access to the impacted area is not immediately possible. This situation is another opportunity to use UAS to provide that initial observation of the impacted area and allow for effective planning and response. In the previously cited report, payloads that may be carried by UAS include electro-optical video, infrared sensor to detect heat, mapping sensor, communications relay and sniffers to detect a substance in the air. The payloads on UAS expand the capabilities of public safety agencies to respond in a more informed and safe manner.

The value of the UAS by public safety agencies is supported by the increased usage during disasters.  This article focused on natural disasters and the varied mission that could be performed by UAS.  In disasters and emergencies developed because of technical accidents or manmade incidents such as terrorism, the use of UAS to respond would be effective as well. With increased usage of UAS by public safety agencies, it is expected that new approaches and payloads for UAS will increase to better respond to disasters and emergencies.

About the Author

Lawrence Nolan retired as a Captain from the U.S. Navy Reserve and served as an Intelligence Officer and Navy Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer for New Jersey and the Mid-Atlantic Region. He also retired as a Supervisory Logistics Management Specialist from the Department of the Army at Fort Monmouth, NJ. He currently develops Emergency Management Policy for Capstone Corporation supporting the Navy Installations Command.

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