A Need for Balanced Discussion about the Use of Drones

19 01 2013

Much as been written in recent months about the use of drones, both by the military and also by local governments.  For some the use of drones is an assistance to securing the nation and providing a practical tool to aid responders after a disaster.  However, for others, the use of drones is an invasion into civil liberties.  Last month, Senator Tom Coburn, released a study, entitled “Safety at Any Price: Assessing the Impact of Homeland Security Spending in U.S. Cities.” 

In his study of homeland security grant purchases, he takes the opportunity to focus on the use of drones by local governments.  Specifically, the study states that “the deployment of [drones] raises important questions about American citizens’ constitutional rights and the appropriate balance between improving security and freedom.  Federal, state, and local policymakers must carefully consider whether new law enforcement tools and strategies protect freedom or threaten civil liberties.”

The report then goes on to cite the Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant program as a program that has helped local jurisdictions “purchase and deploy unmanned aerial vehicles across the country without careful implications of the long-term implications.”  It is unclear what is actually meant by this awkwardly worded sentence.  The report provides several examples of local governments that have purchased drones for law enforcement; traffic accident investigation; barricade situation; and search/rescue missions.  None of the examples document a use of a drone which actually invades any citizen’s privacy.  This is a bit disconcerting because much of the discussion of the report by the media clearly indicates a negativity toward drones.

I have recently blogged about the use of drones in the Houston region and have tried to provide “balanced” information about the issues surrounding the use of such equipment.  One was entitled “Are Drones a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?”—which can be found at https://blog.fbcoem.org/2012/12/12/are-drones-a-good-thing-or-a-bad-thing/  Another blog entry discussed the privacy issues raised by the use of drones in California– which can be found at https://blog.fbcoem.org/2012/12/17/drones-versus-privacy-advocates-in-california/  As with most anything in life, there are good things AND bad things about the use of drones.  The use of drones, as noted in the article reprinted below, provides a wonderful opportunity to use technology to save lives and limit damage to property.  It is a fantastic tool that can be used by first responders. 

Can a drone be misused?  I am sure it can and there are federal agencies that regulate the use of such equipment such as the FAA and DHS.  Reasonable regulation of the use of such equipment is completely understandable and should be done so that such equipment is not improperly used.  Throwing stones at the purchase and use of drones, as the above study appears to do, is not helpful.  It does not lead to useful discussion.  A balanced approach is needed.  As you will read in the article below, there is a tremendous amount of good that can be done using a drone during a disaster.  You will also see that the capabilities of such drones are nothing like a military drone.  They are far less capable of doing the bad things that some people think is possible.  On the other hand, they have the potential of doing much good for many people during an emergency.

The following is an article written by Brian Heaton for Emergency Management magazine.  It was published on December 12, 2012.  The article was originally published by Government Technology magazine.

Aerial Drone Aids in Chemical Train Derailment Response

The use of unmanned aerial drones may raise privacy and safety questions for some people, but the technology’s life-saving benefits are well worth the risk for Louisville Emergency Management Agency Director Doug Hamilton.

Faced with a chemical train derailment in the southwest area of Jefferson County, Ky., in October, Hamilton sent in an aerial drone to take photographs and observe the scene. The drone sent back valuable information that helped Hamilton evaluate the situation without risking the lives of emergency personnel who normally would have approached the area on foot.
Train+drone_photo
The derailment of the Paducah & Louisville Railway train occurred in an area where the tracks were elevated on a hill, and the side where the train derailed slopes down toward the Ohio River. As a result, responders could only get to the train from one side. The drone provided Hamilton’s team with a view and focus that they wouldn’t have otherwise had in the situation.

“It helped us refine our questions when the contractors submitted their plans for moving the cars, what the risks were going to be and what the evacuation zones were going to be, where we would not have been able to do otherwise,” Hamilton said.

The drone was brought in after a fire ignited as contractors were preparing to move a rail car containing butadiene — a flammable gas that is shipped liquefied and can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat, and drowsiness and dizziness. Exposure to butadiene can also damage the central nervous and reproductive systems.

That car was up against another car containing hydrogen fluoride, a chemical that can cause severe respiratory damage. The fire set up a potentially explosive situation where the toxic chemicals could be released in the air. Residents were evacuated throughout the area.

Hamilton explained that when the butadiene car ignited and the flame was hitting the top of the rail car holding the hydrogen fluoride, it began to boil the latter chemical. Without keeping the temperature down, a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion (BLEVE) could occur, which could hurl the rail car thousands of feet and vaporize the hydrogen fluoride, creating a toxic inhalation hazard.

While water at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute was being dumped on the railcar for several hours to keep it cool and avoid an explosion, Hamilton felt his team had to have a better view on what was going on.

“Ordinarily, we as a jurisdiction don’t get involved in the ‘ifs’, ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ of how a contractor is going to deal with a hazardous materials response and clean up,” Hamilton said. “But as a result of the fire on Wednesday [Oct. 31], there was somewhat of a jolt to our confidence and more of an awareness on our level that we needed to be exactly clear on what the contractor intended on doing.”

Responders first called in a police helicopter to take fly-over photos. But while Hamilton said the photos from it were handy, the possibility of a large explosion made using the helicopter a risky move.

At that point, Hamilton was told an aerial drone called the Datron Scout was available. Provided by Drone Systems, the drone and the company’s president Joel Embry was on-scene on Nov. 1 to control the vehicle. Able to zip in and out of the scene in 20-minute increments, the drone took photos of the area without putting the lives of responders in jeopardy.

“It’s a hell of a lot better [quality] photos than we were getting from a helicopter, which can’t be as stable as a drone is,” Hamilton said.

Although the drone operated well, the deployment in this particular situation wasn’t perfect.

The initial plan was to use the drone for live video transmissions so that responders could evaluate the situation in real time. But the idea was nixed due to connectivity and compatibility issues between the drone and the incident command center.

Hamilton explained that the drone’s video operated using Apple’s QuickTime software. While that doesn’t seem too big of a hurdle, the equipment being used by emergency responders didn’t have the software. In addition, the state’s command vehicle also couldn’t connect to the video, and in the interest of time, Hamilton abandoned the idea and went with just aerial photos from the drone.

The images weren’t delivered wirelessly, however. The drone flew out to the site, took pictures and then had to fly back to where responders were located so they could download them and view the scene.

Rick Bobo, regional response manager for Region 4 of Kentucky Emergency Management, a division of the Kentucky Department of Military Affairs, said his goal is to make sure that the communication link between the state’s command vehicle and the drone is established for the next time the technology is used.

While Bobo wasn’t on the scene, he said state representatives tried to establish the uplink, but were lacking the proper equipment to get the drone’s video feed to function properly. But they now know what they need to make it happen and it’s just a matter of getting it completed.

Despite the video hiccup, Hamilton is fully on board with using an aerial drone during other emergency situations in the future. Because the incident lasted for 19 days, emergency personnel had plenty of time to talk about the drone and other applications where it would be valuable to use.

“If we had the drone on day one, we would have had a better appreciation initially of exactly what kind of a problem we had here,” Hamilton said. “The drone moved from down at the bottom of our grant request list to closer to the top.”

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Free Online Training about Railroad Safety for Emergency Responders

26 05 2012

CSX recently launched a free, online training program to educate emergency personnel on how to safely respond to incidents on and around railroad property and equipment. The site at www.csxsafe.com, is the first of its kind launched by a U.S. railroad for this audience.

CSXSAFE offers participants the opportunity to gain an understanding of how railroads operate, including some of the hazards of working around the rails and necessary protocols to keep responders safe. This web-based program takes
less than an hour to complete, and is intended to provide important information to public agency personnel in fire and police departments, rescue and emergency medical organizations.

“Every day, emergency workers put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public in homes, office buildings, factories, agricultural facilities and other locations, each with distinct hazards,” said Mike Lunsford, CSX director-chemical safety. “CSXSAFE is one of the ways we help these brave men and women by educating them on the unique challenges posed by railroad operations. Emergency personnel have to know a great deal about a variety of different industries and settings, and we want to make it as easy as possible for them to learn about ours.”

The educational section of the site is organized into four parts, providing basics on Safety, CSX Operations, Initial Response and Railroad Equipment. Upon completion of the training modules, participants take a quiz, print a certificate of completion and are able to browse through upcoming in-person training opportunities being offered across the CSX network.

“For those who don’t work for the railroad, our equipment can be intimidating and some safety risks may not be apparent,” said Cliff Stayton, director of Community Affairs & Safety. “This training is designed to help emergency workers make good decisions quickly and know who to call to get help.”