Interview with Charles Werner, Chair, National Council on Public Safety UAS (NCPSU)
Charles Werner has 44 years experience in public safety with 37 years of service with the Charlottesville, Virginia fire department. Werner served his last 10 years of tenure as fire chief (2005-2015). Involved with national initiatives, and known as the technology fire chief, Werner began exploring unmanned aircraft systems to see what they had to offer public safety. After retiring, he became senior advisor to Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).
Werner began his UAS journey when he personally bought a drone and flew it himself to assess the utility, ease of operation, cost. “If I could do it, it made sense that anyone else in public safety could do it as well.” He saw early technology adoption by some fire departments and wanted to share knowledge, build the lessons learned, and decrease barriers to entry.
Public Safety Applications
In 2015, Werner wrote an article for Firehouse Magazine outlining his throughs on the potential UAS offered for fire service and public safety - many of which are now being done today. Drones are being used on the west coast shoreline for shark patrol and throughout the United States for HazMat response and search and rescue operations, as well as in Europe and Australia.
Drones provide the ability to stream activity in real time resulting in increased situational awareness and better ability to respond. “They give an incident commander or emergency manager a much better idea of what they’re dealing with so their situational awareness is better...the more information we have...the better decisions we make.”
Recent examples include finding unknown hotspots in wildfires, monitoring protest marches like those in Charlottesville, alerting swimmers and surfers of nearby sharks, and damage assessment after Hurricane Harvey.
Previously, the biggest inhibitor was stringent regulations surrounding drones; you had to be a pilot or attending ground flight school to be certified for operation. In 2016, the regulations changed and the cost of technology is rapidly dropping. Today, in Werner’s opinion, the biggest barrier is getting the public safety program organized around governance, transparency, training, documentation, and policies and procedures. Getting your operators certified and understanding national air space rules and regulations are a challenge right at the beginning. “When you become a remote pilot or a drone operator in the public safety world, you are a pilot now in aviation air space.”
National Council and the Future
Primary goals for the NCPSU include advancing the technology and use of UAS in public safety more quickly, and understanding threats of counter UAS and how to deal with nefarious actors. Werner describes it as the “risk of the careless, the clueless, and the criminal.”
This is a critical time for UAS, according to Werner. Awareness is increasing and public safety is starting to see success from other departments, changes in regulations have increased opportunities, technology is adapting to public safety needs, and partnering with unmanned vehicles is bringing more attention to the discussion.
“In the next 3-5 years, 90% of agencies will have UAS - if you are not looking into it, you need to be.”