With the recent availability of more affordable and multi-functional UAS platforms and sensor technologies, and their demonstrated capability to provide critical information for a wide variety of incident scenarios, they appear to be on the precipice of widespread acceptance and use within the first responder community.
As the proliferation of unmanned systems continues, decisions must now be made as to how the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS) will incorporate and manage these new “resources” and “processes” within their respective frameworks.
UAS integration into emergency management
Compared to conventional helicopter and fixed wing assets, UAS can provide immediate, low-cost situational awareness to Incident Commands (ICs), Multiagency Coordination (MAC) Systems, Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) and various responder departments, agencies and organizations during “all-hazards” incidents or planned special events of any type, size or complexity. The availability of numerous types and sizes of maneuverable UAS platforms that can hover at near ground level and fly to several hundred feet provides the ability to rapidly deploy customized sensor packages within a dynamic operational environment. The entire emergency management community can benefit from the variety and availability of information collected from such unencumbered aerial platforms.
One of the guiding principles of NIMS is effective resource management; and the integration of UAS capabilities at the local level would provide immediate benefits through a decreased burden on dedicated assets and resources. The ability of first responders to effectively and decisively react to anemergency situation (locally or remotely) is dependent upon the quality, accuracy, timeliness and usability of information. The ability to potentially obtain information en route to an incident could also assist in reducing overall response and coordination time of first responders.
With an incident or special event managed under ICS, real-time data (collected actively or passively from various UAS-based sensors) can be simultaneously streamed to multiple users — to include deployed persons using handheld equipment — which can provide significant enhancements to the timeliness and accuracy of the communication of critical information. Furthermore, the availability of a repository of collected data can markedly enhance the effectiveness of future training and exercises for all levels of responders, as well as provide forensic support in the event of a man-caused incident. The integration of UAS in emergency management should be seamless, as it represents an additional (albeit multifaceted) resource to collect, analyze and communicate data, and whose effectiveness can be directly measured using the existing NIMS characteristics of effective communication systems:
- Interoperable—able to provide information within and across agencies and jurisdictions;
- Reliable—able to function in the context of any kind of emergency;
- Portable—built on standardized technologies and protocols;
- Scalable—suitable for use on a small or large scale as the needs of the incident dictate;
- Resilient—able to perform despite damaged or lost infrastructure; and
- Redundant—able to use alternate methods when primary resources are unavailable.
Incident command and control
UAS derived information would be a planning and operational imperative throughout the duration of an incident, and, while it is yet to be determined who will exercise future operational control over UAS assets during an actual response, it is possible these assets will eventually be managed (and logistically supported) by an air operations branch for larger “typed” incidents, and by a situation unit for smaller, localized incidents.
FEMA may even choose to officially institute the use of an “Intelligence Section” attached somewhere within the incident commander’s command and/or general staff positions, and have it involved in coordinating the use of UAS assets and the resulting information flow. Doctrinally, it will be up to the national responder community to collectively determine the size and complexity threshold of incidents requiring the establishment of an actual air operations branch, as well as transitional issues such as how to establish control and safely coordinate all types of air assets (strategic vs tactical) within the incident’s air space.
UAS credentialing and operator certification training
Once the responder community fully embraces the widespread use of unmanned systems and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) relaxes its regulations on UAS operations during an emergency incident, there will be an increased need for UAS credentialing and operator training standards. Likewise, any certification requirements would likely be expanded to include training in real-time and post-mission analysis, as well as methods of information collection, management and dissemination.
Possible future outcomes
It is likely that the command and control issues (within ICS-NIMS) will begin to change and take on a more formalized structure when:
- The response community (at all levels) becomes more familiar with the game-changing potential of integrated unmanned systems and begins to use them on a more frequent basis;
- UAS assets areformally “resource typed” and accepted into the response framework; and
- There are sufficient numbers of trained and certified operators available for response and deployment.
This is a new era in the evolution of ICS/NIMS information and technology management, and it’s rapidly unfolding before our very eyes. Future acceptance of unmanned systems will be bolstered as real-world success stories of UAS assets playing a positive and vital role in incident responses continue to be reported. The relevant policies, procedures and structures are yet to be written, and input from people in the field — who are currently dealing with or considering these new challenges and opportunities — will be key to developing the very guidelines that lead all of us into a new future.
An expanded future that soon may actually be referred to as “Three Dimensional ICS.”
UAS emergency management missions
Information for numerous mission and post-mission applications (from general situational awareness to locating and two-way communication with an individual person) can be gathered by a variety of UAS mounted sensor technologies, including traditional, high resolution optical and thermal video and still imagery, hyperspectral & multispectral imagery, LiDAR, Radar, InSAR and IFSAR, etc.
The following represents areas that could be enhanced through the use of unmanned systems:
- Damage Assessment: For assessing the level of structural damage/destruction across all types of critical infrastructure (commercial and government) from any type of man-made and natural disasters.
- HazMat Response: To assist government and Industry to establish the type, plume size, concentration and direction of hazardous chemical releases for a more accurate and timely establishment of exclusion (hot) and support (cold) zones and related response planning.
- Fire Operations: To assist responders (structural & wildland) in assessing the extent of the situation, conducting thermal imaging reconnaissance flights over wildfires and hot-spot mapping.
- Search and Rescue: (including Urban Search and Rescue) for collapsed structures, as well as to assist in individual/small group rescues in remote environments. UAS Infrared (IR) sensors could be used to locate injured or missing persons during periods of darkness.
- Security, Surveillance: To provide a “force multiplier” in support to responders for various incidents such as barricaded persons, hostage situations, riot/crowd control/civil unrest, active shooter, as well as surveillance of critical locations during and post incident. Also to perform surveillance operations of remote property boundaries, physical access points and critical infrastructure nodes in place of security forces (private and government) who will be spread thin during an actual incident.
- Transportation Infrastructure (road, rail, tunnel and bridge): Incidents can include seismic damage, traffic accidents, derailments, mass evacuations, collapses, route analysis for special events and VIP emergency egress, etc.
- Disaster Planning and Response: Providing geophysical analysis for measuring the impact of earthquakes, floods, volcanos, land/mudslides, ice flows, etc.
- Environmental Analysis: Pollution and air quality analysis for Industry and/or government.
- Agricultural Analysis: To provide information and analysis the condition of crops and other critical food sources for Industry and/or government in the event of a man-made or natural disaster.
- Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Operations: To provide technical support to federal, military, state, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Faith-based organizations, during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations worldwide.
- Public Health Crisis: To provide a mode of securely transporting critical medications (to include antiviral countermeasures) when hospitals and other healthcare facilities, community/regional points of dispensing (PODs), and homes of individuals with special needs are blocked from normal modes of transportation due to a disaster.
- Special Event Planning and Operations: Route analysis/ingress-egress for presidential visits, sporting and entertainment events, major parades, etc.
- Emergency Communications: To use UAS platforms to provide Wi-Fi and cellular phone relay services.
- Data for Post-Mission Analysis Activities: Data can be used for investigative “forensic” support through capturing targeted after-action information for any type of man-made or natural disaster incident.
- Preparedness and Response Exercise Support: Can provide a method of adding realism without the typical time and cost burden of an actual deployment of personnel, equipment, and other resources during a full-scale or functional exercise.
- Critical Infrastructure Key Resource Analysis Support: UAS platforms can be used to assist on-sight persons conducting vulnerability, risk, threat and security assessments by collecting unique data (e.g., day/night still imagery and video) of remote areas such as outer perimeters and along fence lines, inhospitable environments, areas with hazardous materials storage, as well as elevated areas such as rooftops.
Rob Carter is director of Emergency Management and Strategic Services for the Cabezon Group with more than 30 years of experience and expertise in emergency management, homeland security, intelligence and defense analysis. He holds numerous related FEMA-EMI certifications to include Advanced ICS, and is a nationally recognized expert in Critical Infrastructure – Key Resource (CIKR) Analysis. Before joining Cabezon Group, he served in senior positions in private industry and government, to include as an Executive and Operations Intelligence Officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Illustration top: UAS platforms of all types can be simultaneously deployed and the critical data they collect can be accessed in real-time by multiple users.
Photo bottom: UAS used in firefighting to provide situational awareness.