The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) used a drone to fight a four-alarm fire in the Bronx this month. Wildland firefighting crews have deployed drones in recent years to help fight forest fires, but the March 6 fire in New York City was the first time a large urban fire department made use of this new technology. It signals a new era for both firefighting and drones.
The use of drones during firefighting operations is a new component of the emerging age of drone use for everything from conducting air strikes to delivering packages. While the United States military was quick to utilize drones for surveillance and targeting operations around the world during the global war on terror, fire departments have not been as quick to adopt this tremendous asset.
Firefighting has not changed much over the past few decades, with firefighters continuing to directly attack fires in home and building interiors and with the same tools they have for many years. The only significant technology that most departments have begun to use in recent years are thermal imaging cameras that allow officers to find fire locations through thick smoke and dark conditions.
The eight-pound drone cost the department $85,000 and can relay live images to the ground via a small cable. It has an infrared, high-definition camera that is ideal for seeing through smoke or during nighttime operations, and can identify hotspots where fires are burning.
The FDNY has been using the drone during training operations at the fire academy on Randall’s Island and at other locations throughout the city for the past few months. At the March 6 fire in the Bronx, the Incident Commander made the decision to deploy the drone to get a bird’s-eye view of the six-story building that was on fire. At fires in large cities like New York, operations on the roofs of buildings are often dangerous and unpredictable. The deployment of a drone for a higher perspective could provide fire chiefs and officers the right amount of visibility to enable them to make better decisions to keep firefighters operating on the roof safer. It could also aid in determining factors such as fire extension and ventilation.
The FDNY faces many challenges as they continue to search for ways to employ this new asset to its firefighting operations. For one, New York City has many tall buildings that will make navigating drones and communicating with them from the ground very difficult. In addition to trouble from tall buildings, the airspace above New York City is the most congested in the world. Three major airports in the area generate thousands of arrivals and departures every day.
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There are also many private aircraft and helicopters to contend with, and the FDNY will need to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the scene prior to deploying the drone. This approval could take up to 15 minutes, and a delay like this could be costly when fighting fast-moving fires.
The FDNY has always been at the forefront of emerging technologies used for firefighting and emergency operations.
Their use of a drone this month could very well prove to be the beginning of a new era of technology-based firefighting operations that will help keep first responders and civilians safe.
Christopher Castellano is a U.S. Army veteran and currently serves as a firefighter in New York City. He is an OpsLens contributor. This article originally appeared in OpsLens and is used by permission.
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