The misconception that Public Safety programs just need a drone and operator to be successful

A public safety program for our department requires us to just purchase a drone and train an operator to run programs and missions successfully.


I have seen many Departments fall victim to the statement above; some recovered, and some faded into “grounded” territory. There is a misconception that a Public Safety Agency needs nothing more than a drone and an operator to have a UAS Program. I am here to tell you this is incorrect. Much of the work to establish a solid Drone Program begins AFTER the pilot has been appropriately trained and the equipment procured.


The Pilot understands the drone and how to use all its features. It is time to start building Department policies for Public Safety sUAS Operations. I have been told countless times, “it is not that important, or We are so small we don’t require them.” I then ask if they have SOPs/SOGs for stretching a hoseline or Traffic Stops. The answer ALWAYS is “yes, of course.” Why would we consider UAS Operations any different? I talked to many Public Safety Departments who never completed this step. It is more critical that most Public Safety UAS Operators understand.


Training is Essential

Training is essential, and there is no substitute for training and honing one’s skills. Can a pilot be trained to properly conduct a mission without knowing what is expected of the flight? How can safe, effective workflows be established without clear guidelines for the operator to understand what is expected from them? Most importantly, when does a flight or operation become too risky and not worth the deployment of the drone? SOPs/SOGs allow operators to understand their job. They list the key elements of the operation and, more importantly, how to achieve them safely. Guidelines also allow for standardization amongst operators. These standards enable the Incident Commander to understand the data being presented. Imagine how easy it would be for the Incident Commander to misinterpret thermal videos taken with different thermal palettes or isotherm settings. SOPs/SOGs should document these settings to prevent minor issues from occurring. Minor issues can significantly impact the unit and the emergency scene. Imagine an Incident Commander allocating resources or altering tactics using non-accurate data. The consequences could be tragic. Consistency will allow for a more structured data set that is less likely to be wrong or misunderstood.


Importance of SOPs/SOGs

No two operators are the same. There are different levels of training, experience, familiarity, and confidence, amongst many other characteristics, creating an operator’s flight style. The idea of SOPs/SOGs is to make the operation as uniform as possible regardless of the operator. Uniformity can only be achieved with proper SOPs/SOGs. Training additional operators are what will bring scalability and growth to the unit. It is essential that the training be standardized and derived directly from the SOPs/SOGs. SOPs are the only way to create standardization within a UAS program. Training derived from procedures does not prohibit growth or innovation. Pilots can utilize new training and techniques and perfect the workflow to be written and adopted into these procedures. However when operating, the Pilots will use the existing systems and methods. Familiar systems and settings will allow time for changes to be understood amongst the entire team and Incident Commanders.


SOPs/SOGs allow UAS operators to perform better preflight risk assessments. It creates a path for a pilot to release from the pressure of conducting an unsafe operation. Suppose your SOPs state the sUAS should not be operated in adverse weather conditions, and the pilot is being asked to operate in unsuitable conditions. Pilots can decline the flight using the SOPs to justify their decision. Pilots should know they have the final call if a flight can be conducted. Pilots can feel pressures from higher-ups or peers, which can alter the operator’s judgment. Altered judgment has been the cause of countless aviation accidents, and Risk management is one of the core principles of Aeronautical Decision Making. ADM is one of the most well-documented and researched topics in aviation. SOPs/SOGs will allow pilots to utilize ADM in their daily operations. Proper planning and use of ADM fundamentals will significantly impact the safety and success of a program as a whole. Safety as a primary focus will allow operators the critical time to discuss and preplan their missions instead of rushing into an operation haphazardly. I know time is crucial in operations, and I am not saying to take an hour or so to plan this mission out(unless it requires an hour or two). Slow the approach and take the time to review your checklists and mission objectives before taking to the skies.


Checklists, Mission Objectives and Workflow

Checklists and Mission Objectives created directly from SOPs/SOGs will develop into a more natural workflow. Natural workflows reduce stress on the operator and the UAS team. Reducing stress will reduce operator fatigue. Errors and accidents are almost unavoidable when fatigued. Laws prevent commercial drivers from driving over a certain amount of hours. However, These laws do not exist for sUAS Operators. These laws can exist in your SOPs/SOGs, which would prevent overworking an exhausted operator. SOPs/SOGs are powerful and essential pieces to the Public Safety UAS Operations puzzle. They provide structure, protection, accountability, scalability, reliability, uniformity, and much more to the operation or program. So why are Public Safety UAS programs failing to take the time to build SOPs/SOGs? The rapid changes within the UAS industry scare Operators away from structured policies. 


Operators are afraid structure will prevent them from operating effectively. Many feel that SOPs/SOGs are restrictive and do not promote the growth of a Unit based mainly on technologies. This can be somewhat true; however, it is usually far from reality.SOPs/SOGs can only be improved if they are updated, and changes are made to adapt to newer equipment. Workflows and systems need to be updated in SOPs often, but it is much less frequent than one would think. PROPS recommends reviewing your SOPs/SOGs quarterly with emergency changes added at any time. Changes are essential to keep the SOPs/SOGs current. If they become too outdated(which can quickly happen in a short time), they will be a liability to safety and UAS operations In conclusion, SOPs/SOGs are critical and important to all UAS operations and should be embraced rather than feared.