Delayed Response: Thoughts on Public Safety from a Frontline Firefighter/Medic
“Pan pan, pan pan, pan pan. A 406MHZ EPIRB distress beacon has been received by satellite, sixty nautical miles west of Adak. The beacon is registered to Western Venture, call sign WDG5225. Keep a sharp lookout for signs of distress and assist if possible.”
I've never been a big fan of reality television but, perhaps because of my fascination with large pieces of machinery, I have always liked Discovery Channel's "The Deadliest Catch." A few weeks ago, during a rerun of the show, the never ending routine of baiting and dropping traps was interrupted by the distress call above. "The Deadliest Catch" AND a rescue? Now I was hooked!
As Coast Guard rescue helicopters scrambled to launch, a fixed wing aircraft was already on its way to the last known location of the crippled vessel. Arriving on scene well before the helicopters, the plane began to circle the ship and nearby life raft. Two important rescue functions were now happening way out in the middle of the Bering Sea.
First, the circling aircraft was collecting and transmitting valuable data for responding rescuers. By having a presence on scene long before rescuers arrive, crews had a much better idea of what they were headed in to. The ship was on fire and almost fully involved. A life raft had successfully launched from the ship and floated a safe distance from the inferno. Occupants of the life raft could be seen giving visual signals suggesting they were in relatively good condition under the circumstances. And, finally, weather and surf conditions were favorable for rescue.
A second job was being performed by the circling plane which is arguably just as important. The circling plane meant, “We see you and we are not leaving until help is here.” I can only imagine the peace of mind this simple reassurance gave the crew who were most likely in fear for their lives.
In many ways, a rescue at sea is no different than a rescue on land. We are often dispatched to emergencies a significant distance from the station with limited information. Long response times create a number of potentially deadly obstacles for both victims and responders. Are there hazards on scene requiring specialized equipment or personnel? How many victims are involved? Is there a fire or other labor-intensive component? Are there problems with accessibility to the scene? If the answer to any one of these questions requires additional resources, it will take even longer to get help to a remote scene.
The technology to address these concerns exists today in the form of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). More commonly referred to as “drones,” UAVs have received a lot of attention in recent years. Unfortunately, much of the attention has been negative. Historically, UAVs have been used for surveillance and assaults by the military. Do a Google search for “drones” and it won’t be long before you find articles about targeted killings, attacks on targets in public areas, spying and intelligence gathering, and the ethics of using UAVs to invade our privacy.
Photo: School of Photographic Imaging
Perhaps this is why the public’s reception of this new technology has been pointedly negative. What’s concerning to me is the impulsive movement to ban these gadgets from our toolbox. The town of Amherst, MA recently “…voted overwhelmingly to ban drones on a local level…” (Only In The Republic of Amherst Blog) out of fear their privacy would be violated by big brother.
I once heard a story from an old-timer about the first time he saw an automobile as a child. Walking home from the local fishing hole with a friend in the early 1900’s, they heard a strange noise coming toward them. Afraid of this mechanical monster, the two actually dropped their fishing gear and ran into the woods where they hid behind a tree until the vehicle had passed.
So is this how it’s going to be? Out of a childlike fear of this new technology we’re going to choose to demonize it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to learn about how we could use it to better our community? How many technologies do we use on a daily basis that are used on a military level? Yet we choose to reject this one.
Computers, radar, GPS, cryptography, and even pre-hospital emergency medicine are all examples of technologies either born from or improved upon in wartime. Each one of these has the potential to be misused, yet we choose to regulate their use and embrace the technology rather than ban them altogether. So why should drones be any different?
One only needs to look as far as a rescue at sea to realize the possibilities.
Imagine a car driving down a lonely rural road in the middle of the night when the unthinkable happens. An icy patch, a moose on the road, a drunk driver swerving across the lines, or any number of other split-second snags suddenly crosses the vehicle’s path. The car careens off the road into a ditch and lands against a tree. Injured but alive, the occupant is unable to call for help. Another car may not pass for hours but the car’s computer has sensed the impact and is already using the occupant’s phone to dial 9-1-1. The emergency operator answers the phone and hears an automated message (including GPS coordinates) very similar to the opening of this article.
Within seconds emergency crews are being dispatched to the scene from their station several narrow, windy miles away. At the same time, a UAV launches from a strategically predetermined site. It travels in a straight line a top speed until it approaches the scene and then begins to circle, transmitting video data back to the dispatch center. Once it has identified potential hazards, it carefully moves itself closer to the vehicle in order to get a better view.
Eight minutes before the first emergency crews arrive on scene, the UAV has already helped dispatchers determine there is not one occupant, but three. All of them appear to be trapped in the overturned vehicle and injuries appear significant. The dispatchers are then able to activate additional resources. A heavy rescue company, two additional ambulances, and a medical helicopter have now been dispatched to this scene several minutes before the first crew even arrives on scene, giving the occupants the best possible chance for survival.
Similar scenarios include structure fires, wilderness rescues, riots or violent crimes, and a number of other public safety emergencies. Every bit of the technology needed in this example already exists. Some cars already call for help when needed. The key is not to banish it out of fear, but to help mold it to shape our needs.
Will the technology be misused? Of course. I can’t think of a technology out there which isn’t misused by someone in some way. And the media will always be quick to pick up on the negative stories because people doing the right thing rarely make the news. Still, we must not allow ourselves to be controlled by fear.
I have always been an advocate for using available technologies to their fullest potential. Love them or hate them, drone technology is here. Being wary of their misuse and abuse is a valid concern and should not be ignored. But banning the technology altogether is not a realistic or productive use of our time and energy
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Tom Valle earned his EMT certification in 2000. After graduating from UMass, Amherst in 2001, Tom worked private ambulance in both Springfield and Greenfield, MA while earning his paramedic certification from Greenfield Community College. He continues to work as a professional firefighter/paramedic in western Massachusetts and serves as the secretary for union’s Local. Tom is continuing his education by working towards a Bachelor’s in Fire Science through Columbia Southern University.
Tom can be reached directly at