Enhanced Safety and Better Decision-making – New York Fire Department Benefiting From Drones

  • Find out how drones are benefiting New York City Fire Department (FDNY);
  • Captain Michael Leo describes drones as a ‘game changer’ – vital for situational awareness, rapid response, and enhanced crew safety;
  • FDNY utilises a fleet of DJI aircraft, including the M210 and Mavic 2 Enterprise Series;
  • UK-based Heliguy interviewed FDNY at DJI AirWorks 2019, as part of our launch into the USA to serve the enterprise and consumer drone market.

The Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) is benefiting from drones – gaining vital situational awareness and improving efficiency and safety in the field.

FDNY has established a thriving UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) programme, bolstered by a mixture of DJI aircraft, as well as thermal and zoom cameras.

In FDNY’s experience, drones have transformed firefighting operations, with Captain Michael Leo describing unmanned aircraft as a ‘game changer’ for fire crews.

Drones provide a faster response and help us deploy the team on the ground as safely as possible.



Captain Michael Leo

During the 2019 DJI AirWorks conference in Los Angeles, Heliguy met FDNY representatives – including Captain Leo – to discuss the Department’s drone programme.

FDNY’s Michael Wall and Michael Leo with Heliguy’s Ruairi Hardman at DJI AirWorks 2019.

Award-wining DJI Gold Partner Heliguy has recently launched in the USA, opening a HQ in Texas, to bring our renowned UK model of supply and support to the States and to serve the American enterprise and consumer drone market.

To mark Heliguy’s expansion into the USA, and to celebrate the role of drones in public safety, Heliguy Insider takes an in-depth look at FDNY’s UAS programme and finds out how the Department’s firefighters are using drones to make better and faster decisions and improve crew safety.

‘Using Drones For The First Time Was An Earth-shattering Moment’

Monday, March 6, 2017. The Bronx. This was where it all began for FDNY’s drone team, deploying UAS at a live incident for the first time.

For the inaugural mission – and in the early days of FDNY’s UAS programme – a tethered drone was called into action.

The drone that started it all. FDNY’s first tethered drone.

It was the catalyst for building a drone fleet and helped to break down some initial resistance to embracing unmanned aircraft.

Battalion Chief Anthony Pascocello said: “Using the drone at that first incident was an earth-shattering moment for the Department.

“It was the first time that the incident commander had real-time information from the roof and he could actually see what the sector was reporting back to him. Once he saw what the drone could do, he was sold on it.”

FDNY’S drone programme was borne out of the 9/11 attacks.

Following the tragedy, FDNY – the largest municipal fire department in the United States and the second-largest in the world – launched the Command Tactical Unit (CTU). The CTU was designed to shape real-time strategy using the latest technology – evolving from using a GoPro and iPhones, to drones and other robotics.

Chief Pascocello said: “The drones are attached to our Command Tactical Unit – part of operations and the operations centre – which started in 2006, post-9/11.

Drones are attached to FDNY’s Command Tactical Unit.

“The idea was to give the incident commander and also the executive staff at HQ and command staff real-time situational awareness at any incident.

“This came out of 9/11 where we didn’t have all the complete information that day. The idea is to get complete, real-time information to help with strategy and tactics.

“It started at the time with whatever technology was available – box cameras, vehicle-mounted cameras and then as time went on it transitioned to GoPros, and then iPhones and iPads.

“Then, about three years ago, drones were starting to come to the forefront. The Department was hesitant about it – we wanted good security where no one could take over our drone and use it in an unwieldy manner. So we got a tethered drone and that was the original drone we used.”

Since then, the Department has not looked back. Drones have proved their worth and FDNY has built its fleet accordingly, packing it out with a DJI M210 drone with DJI Zenmuse XT2 thermal sensor and DJI Zenmuse Z30 zoom camera; six Mavic 2 Enterprise drones – with three Duals (with thermal) and three Zooms; and a Phantom 4 RTK, as well as a number of tethered solutions.

A DJI M210 with a Z30 and XT2 attached.

In fact, FDNY’s drone operations have proved so successful, the Department – as an early adopter of the technology – is now helping other agencies in the city build and develop their UAS programmes.

‘We Can Use Drones For A Lot Of Missions And Applications’

“Situational awareness is the main thing that we use the drones for,” says Captain Michael Leo.

Indeed, the drones, integrated with thermal/zoom cameras, have become a vital tool for crews, allowing them to see the direction of a fire, detect hotspots and inspect the integrity of a structure. This helps to shape better tactics, which means a more effective and safer strategy.

View from above. Drones provide officers with valuable situational awareness.

FDNY also uses its drones for building inspections, arson investigations and safety checks.

Captain Leo said: “There are a lot of missions and applications that we can use drones for.

“The main one is situational awareness, but as we go down the mission list we touch on special operations with our rescue capabilities and high-angle ability. We can see for almost a mile away with the optics we have on some of the drones.

“So if there is a high-angle incident, like a hanging scaffold or a crane incident, we can see it quicker than somebody actively going on the scene, which means we can get resources moving faster.”

For FDNY, the DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual is the department’s go-to drone in the majority of UAS missions.

The DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual.

Captain Leo said: “Drones help massively with situational awareness and the Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual is our main drone – I would say that we do 90% of our work with it.

“We have found it to be very reliable, fast to deploy, really easy to use, and the thermal is good enough for what we need.

“The thermal imaging tells us the temperature gradients and helps us to identify where the hotspots are, which allows us to deploy our resources in the right places, providing a faster response and helping us deploy the team on the ground as safely as possible.”

A drone with a thermal camera is a vital tool for fire crews, helping to detect hotspots and show other useful information.

While FDNY uses untethered drones for a range of missions, the Department says that tethered drones are still an option.

Chief Pascocello said: “We operate our tethered drones at about 150ft to 200ft and tethered drones are ideal for long-time operation. There was one example where we utilised the tethered drone for seven-to-eight hours.

“For an overall view of a scene, the tethered drone works well, so we envisage using it in the future for special events and large-scale incidents and public gatherings.

“For these reasons, the tethered drone has a part in our arsenal, but for the day-to-day stuff, we have the untethered drones.”

Big Challenges In The Big Apple

With its towering buildings and bustling streets, New York really is a place like no other – and that applies to flying a drone in Manhattan.

For FDNY, operating UAS under this densely populated urban canopy brings many challenges.

Captain Leo said: “Flying in an urban environment presents several hurdles and operating a drone in New York is different from flying anywhere else in the US.

“Inside the urban canopy, we have strong and unpredictable winds and lots of people, as well as issues with the Global Navigation Satellite System and magnetic interference. We also have to think about the three airports of JFK, New York and LaGuardia. All of these issues are hard to overcome and the airspace is complex.”

He said that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has been ‘tremendously helpful’ in supporting the team and granting them a Certificate of Authority to fly in New York.

He added that the Department’s pilots follow a rigorous pre-flight checklist every time they are called into action. This includes notifying the FAA, Air Traffic Control and New York Police Department Operations and checking for any temporary flight restrictions.

“We can get permission to fly inside these temporary flight restriction zones, but we need permission from the person who put them in place,” said Captain Leo.

He added: “We have been fortunate that we haven’t had any issues with privacy and all of our drones are clearly marked with the department markings so when a drone goes up it is like seeing any apparatus on the street.

A FDNY-branded DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual.

“The public clearly knows who it is. I think for most New Yorkers, the drone is now looked at like a normal thing.”

What Does The Future Hold?

The future for FDNY’s drone programme is exciting and may include multiple units with many different platforms to meet new mission objectives.

The inclusion of ground robotics and remotely-operated marine vehicles into a centralised programme may optimise operational worth and efficiency to achieve economies of scale.

“Right now, we are at the tip of the iceberg of where we are headed in the future,” says Captain Leo.

More About Heliguy’s Expansion Into The USA

With more than a decade of experience in the UAS industry and having established ourselves as one of DJI’s largest and most trusted European enterprise channel partners, Heliguy has decided that the time is right to bring our award-winning model of service and support to America.

UK-based Heliguy – a DJI Gold Partner – will serve the American commercial drone sector, offering a vast stock pool of aircraft, payloads and ancillaries from DJI and other major industry names to transform workflows across public safety, infrastructure, construction, mining, agriculture and film/media.

This will build on our successful enterprise formula, which has seen us establish an esteemed list of clients including Balfour Beatty, Terra Drone Europe, Sulzer Schmid, The BBC, National Geographic, Network Rail, Greater Manchester Police, and Sellafield Sites, as well as forge a worldwide network of partners with key industry players such as SlantRange, 3DR, MicaSense, DroneDeploy, Delair, ParaZero and Hasselblad.

Heliguy will also be bringing our successful consumer brand to the USA, offering DJI’s best hobbyist and professional equipment – from the Mavic range, to the ground-breaking Osmo line of handheld cameras.

Heliguy started life more than a decade ago and has deep roots in America. Since then, Heliguy has embraced and been at the forefront of the constantly evolving drone industry and has built a formidable reputation from our base in the North East of England.

Opening in America is an exciting next chapter in the Heliguy story and we look forward to connecting the USA and Europe and cross-pollinating skills and expertise.

In an exclusive interview with Heliguy, Romeo Durscher, DJI’s Senior Director of Public Safety Integration, backed our American launch.

He said: “This is exciting. Heliguy is crossing boundaries, just like a drone does, and that is what it is all about.

DJI’S Romeo Durscher has backed Heliguy’s expansion into America.

“We are an ecosystem across the globe. Heliguy can bring its experiences to America and Heliguy can learn from us. I am excited to say that Heliguy is now part of our family in the USA.”

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