In First Trial by 'Fire,' Drone Offers Overhead Insight to Commander

Chief Leader - March 15, 2017

by BOB HENNELLY

The FDNY deployed a custom-designed drone for the first time last week to help fight a four-alarm apartment-house fire in the Tremont section of The Bronx. The deployment came after two years of research and development and months of training, according to officials.

The evening fire at 653 Crotona Park North and Crotona Ave. started on the fourth floor. It expanded quickly down to the third, and spread up to the sixth floor of the residential building, eventually compromising portions of the roof. It took 45 minutes to get the blaze under control and required 120 Firefighters and 30 pieces of equipment. Two Firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The after-action reviews for the drone’s debut were quite positive.

A Special Set of Eyes

“We were able to get a good view of the roof, which allowed the Incident Commander on the ground to view the Firefighters as they were conducting roof operations, venting the roof and putting water on the fire,” said the Director of the FDNY Operations Center, Timothy Herlocker.

“The roof started to fail. We were worried about what was going on,” FDNY Deputy Assistant Chief Dan Dono­ghue, the on-scene command­er, told the Daily News. “We had a lot of great radio reports, but that’s only verbal. So, with the drone, we actually had a good visual picture, so it really helped us to make decisions to help put this fire out and keep our guys safe.”

Commissioner Daniel Nigro told reporters March 7 that, in its first official outing, the drone proved itself an invaluable tool for on-scene commanders. “Now they can be at the command post, they can get a verbal report from the folks that are on the roof, and they can be seeing it at the same time they are hearing it, and that is a valuable tool for fire chiefs,” said Mr. Nigro. “We believe it will save property and save lives in the city going forward.”

The drone used in The Bronx is one of a pair of tethered fire-engine-red-colored units that weigh about eight pounds and cost $85,000 each. According to Mr. Nigro, the units’ 200-foot-long tether assures each can “operate for hours on end because it is powered.”

Trained Pilots At Controls

The drones are outfitted with both high-definition and heat-seeking infrared cameras. “They are operated by trained pilots,” the Fire Commissioner said. “We also have one untethered drone that can only operate in very specific areas that are not on flight paths in and out of New York City.” About a dozen members of the FDNY’s Command Tactical Unit have gotten the Federal Aviation Administration certification required to operate the drones.

The drones have deployment limitations: “If it’s very heavy rain, we can’t use it, and if it is too windy, we can’t use it,” said Mr. Nigro.

In a press release, the FDNY said it works closely with the FAA to coordinate the use of the drones. “The Fire Department Operations Center contacts the FAA prior to flying the drone for permission to deploy at night, or into FAA Class B Air Space—the FAA’s most-restricted air space,” according to the department. “Approval takes approximately 10 minutes and takes place while the drone and its operators are responding to a fire.”