Halifax firefighters may soon carry an extra piece of apparatus when they respond to an emergency — an aerial drone — but it would have to satisfy the federal government first.

The region's largest fire department has issued a request for proposals to evaluate purchasing remotely-operated aerial drones.

"From hazardous material spills or a major fire, we're not sending any firefighter in if we don't know the risks," said Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Deputy Chief Roy Hollett.

"What a drone can do is give us a visual of the situation so we're not sending a firefighter. If a drone can do it, so much the better."

The department still has to work out a protocol with Transport Canada, which regulates drone use. It also requires advanced notice for all non-recreational use commercial activity.

Shearwater base complicates drone use

Mark Langille operates a commercial drone services business in Halifax called Flitelab and is a consultant on rapidly-evolving drone policy.

He said the Canadian Forces airbase at Shearwater adds an extra level of complexity for the fire department because Dartmouth and much of peninsular Halifax is controlled airspace. The restrictions impose more onerous conditions on commercial drone operators, including filing a notice to the Halifax Flight Centre under Nav Canada with times, heights and locations.

"The issue for fire and police is to be able to deploy at a moment's notice. It makes the process of doing that virtually impossible," said Langille.

He said the department will have to come up with workarounds to enable drone use — perhaps using lighter vehicles, height restrictions and considering a call to the airport with sufficient notice.

"That's the biggest unknown that has to be worked out," he said.

The fire department in Dieppe, N.B., uses a drone and calls air traffic control in Moncton to satisfy the notification requirement.

"There is some sort of precedence there but it comes down to a case by case basis how they must operate," Langille said.

'We will be the ones in control'

Hollett is confident the department can meet federal requirements.

"We may be able to get — I won't say an exemption — but an understanding. If it's a fire scene, it's our scene on the ground. We may be able to work out an agreement for a specific use," he said.

Hollett said Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency would immediately ground any drone if a government helicopter or water bomber enters the area.

This year in California and British Columbia, drones grounded firefighting planes and choppers.

"We will be the ones in control. They will be operated by us so we know the specific purpose. It's not just out to get pictures," he said.