NEMCo’s Drone Program - Year One

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

NEMCo Ground Operation Team Preparing for Drone Landing.
Photo courtesy NEMCo

By Gail Siani – NEMCo Outreach Committee Co-Chair

NEMCo volunteers consistently train on developing and enhancing their emergency preparedness skills in order to better assist our community via educating them on general preparedness strategies and learning practical skills to ensure they are able to assist first responders when they may be overwhelmed during emergencies. 

These skills cover basics, such as proper fire extinguisher use, basic first aid/CPR/AED/ACT training, generator safety, as well as more specific areas, such as in urban search and rescue, water distribution, and firefighter rehabilitation.

To find other viable approaches to assisting first responders and the community, this year NEMCo began to explore utilizing drones for disaster responses such as urban search and rescue and rapid damage assessments. 

This approach reduces hazardous exposures and risks of on-the-ground injuries to volunteers, first responders, and the public. Drones can provide preliminary data and video documentation to focus efforts and document ground assets in a timely manner.

The drone teams train in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and regulations for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) under 55 pounds (14 CFR Part 107). 

NEMCo drone pilots must pass the FAA Part 107 exam and hold a valid UAS Remote Pilot Certificate. 

Teams typically consist of ground, air, flight, and data specialists with a pilot and flight specialist operating the drone and radio communications during flight activity. 

Each specialist position receives between 6 to 8 hours of training based on the responsibilities and tasks of the positions they are training for. To date, NEMCo has 12 Certificate Specialists at different levels and an additional 11 team members working on this training.

The drone can stay in the air for about 30 minutes, fly up to 400 feet over the scene (based on FAA maximum allowable limits) and carries an on-board camera to search, record, and potentially map the search environment. 

Once the search target is located, the drone team radios the search parties on the ground to investigate further.

To gain situational awareness of a scene, the drone can create a 2D Orthomosic ground image in under 30 minutes. This image covers approximately 10 acres. Image courtesy NEMCo.

The first field demonstration of its value for urban search and rescue was on September 30, 2023 as part of the State of Washington’s Fifth Saturday Drill. 

Setup was at Horizon View Park and the drone team’s mission was to locate a simulated missing person in the surrounding woods. During this drill, the simulated missing person was located by the drone team and they were able to smoothly and efficiently guide the ground teams to them.

Based on this initial success, NEMCo is planning to train additional specialists and conduct further field flights to demonstrate how drones can be a functional part of NEMCo’s response.

The Northshore Emergency Management Coalition (NEMCo) is a partnership among the cities of Kenmore and Lake Forest Park, the Shoreline Fire Department, and the Northshore Utility District (NUD) to maximize each of the participating agencies emergency preparedness efforts and resources to serve our community.


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