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New York City’s Firefighting Arsenal Will Soon Include Drones

posted Sep 8, 2016, 10:53 AM by Tracht Beefor   [ updated Sep 8, 2016, 10:57 AM by Z9 Network ]
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Michael Wall, left, a New York City firefighter, and Lieutenant John Deresto have been assigned to the department’s Command Tactical Unit, which deploys firefighters with cameras to try to get different perspectives of a fire.

The drone hovered over the clearing in the wooded park on Staten Island, the thin cord that tethered it to the ground unspooling enough for it to fly above the trees.

Michael Wall, a New York City firefighter, stood on the ground below, operating the drone from a portable command center of sorts, with controls and a monitor housed in a mustard-colored case. He adjusted a joystick to point the drone’s camera toward New Jersey. A clear shot of the Bayonne Bridge filled the screen in front of him. He panned the camera over the park, sweeping the shot over the dogs that paused from their play to look up and bark, and then zoomed in for a view of the back of a white house across the street.

On this quiet Saturday morning, Mr. Wall was testing one of the Fire Department’s newest tools, an unmanned aircraft that would soon be deployed on the streets of New York. It will be sent out to major fires and emergencies, fire officials said, delivering high-definition images in real time to commanders as they decide how to respond.

“It’s more situational awareness of what’s going on at the scene,” Mr. Wall, who is assigned to the department’s Command Tactical Unit, said. “It’s another view.”

Officials said they expected the drone to be put to work in the city in the coming weeks, responding to two-alarm or greater fires. Two more will be added by the end of the year.

The drone is painted fire-engine red, and officials joked that they had considered having “Keep Back 200 Feet” emblazoned on it, just like on the trucks. The drone weighs only about eight pounds, but it is a far more sophisticated device than the ones used by weekend hobbyists. Costing $85,000, it captures both standard video and infrared images.

The drone will be sent out to major fires and emergencies, delivering high-definition images in real time to commanders.

“That tool for a chief is just night and day from what it was not just 30 years ago when I started, but 15 years ago,” Daniel A. Nigro, the New York fire commissioner, said. “And moving forward, technology like this is a terrific advantage for us and for fire departments around the country.”

Firefighting in big cities has changed very little over the years, with commanders relying on the same strategies and instincts as they always have. But new technologies give fire commanders a better understanding of what is happening at a scene as they dispatch firefighters into dangerous and fast-moving situations.

The job of a firefighter remains physically demanding, Mr. Nigro said, but the department has embraced technology “to make their jobs easier and safer.”

The department’s efforts to use technology intensified after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when fire officials realized the shortcomings commanders faced in trying to take stock of a chaotic scene.

Since then, the department has added an operations center at its headquarters with a wall of monitors displaying calls from around the city and, on a recent morning, a live stream from a police helicopter with a close-up of a man threatening to jump from the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.

The Command Tactical Unit, which deploys firefighters with cameras to try to get different perspectives of a fire, once responded to fires in a refurbished ambulance because the equipment was so bulky. Now, members of the unit are dispatched with a backpack loaded with a tablet, a smartphone and a Wi-Fi hot spot device.

The drone is a promising next iteration.

“One of the biggest issues at a fire scene is trying to get as much information as quickly possible,” said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “and a drone is offering something we’ve never had before.”

Firefighters testing the drone on Staten Island.

The Fire Department realized the benefits of a drone after a 2014 gas explosion in East Harlem in which eight people died and two buildings collapsed. An amateur drone operator sent up his device and captured images that gave an eagle-eye view of the scene.

Timothy E. Herlocker, the director of the department’s operations center, compared those images with those taken by the tactical unit. The drone operator “had the better view,” Mr. Herlocker said. “I would have liked to have been showing more at a higher elevation to the incident commander.”

Still, it took nearly two years of research and planning before fire officials were ready to launch a drone of their own.

Operating in New York City presented a number of challenges, Mr. Herlocker said. For one thing, almost three-quarters of the city is classified by the federal authorities as restricted airspace, leaving it off limits to drones, even those flown by public agencies.

To work around that, the Fire Department reached an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to be able to use the drones in those restricted areas. The department has to get clearance before sending up a drone, a process that, Mr. Herlocker said, should take about 15 minutes.

In a statement, the F.A.A. said it would move to approve such requests “as quickly as possible, particularly in situations where lives may be at risk.” The agency added that it might impose altitude limits to minimize risks.

Another hurdle was the city landscape, with its tall buildings and narrow, congested streets, where a drone’s GPS component might have difficulty getting reception or the device could get tangled in trees.

The drone, one of three that will each cost $85,000, weighs only about eight pounds and captures both standard video and infrared images.

“We’re working toward being able to deploy this anywhere in the city,” Mr. Herlocker said, “regardless of the terrain around it and the obstacles that we face.”

One solution was adding a tether, a thin white cable attached at the bottom that allows the drone to stay aloft indefinitely and send back an uninterrupted video feed. It has GPS connections that make sure the drone stays in the same place, its rotors automatically speeding up and slowing down in response to the wind.

Instead of zooming around like a hobbyist’s drone, the device is limited to going up and down. The tether has a maximum reach of 200 feet.

“It is without a doubt the most boring drone you’ve ever seen in your life,” Mr. Herlocker said. “All it does is goes up, and it stays there.”

The Fire Department will train about a dozen people to work with the drones. It takes two people to operate each one. A pilot operates the controls, and an observer keeps the area clear and assists the pilot.

In recent months, Mr. Wall and other members of the tactical unit have been training with the drone, taking it on trial runs as its debut at fires approaches. They often take it to a park behind a Fire Department facility in the Castleton Corners neighborhood of Staten Island to test the tether and the cameras.

The testing has also given the firefighters an opportunity to see how others interact with the drone, from the dogs running up and barking at it to the man who walked up, just after the drone touched down on its landing pad, and asked to take its picture.