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NY, MT wildland firefighters compare training on emergency drone use

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Posted at 6:56 PM, Aug 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-19 13:29:13-04

MISSOULA — To the casual observer, a skyscraper fire in New York City doesn't seem to have a lot in common with a Montana wildfire, except for the flames.

But during a joint training session, our local wildland firefighters, and New York firefighters find common ground using drones to not only help in emergencies but keep firefighters safe.

For the Fire Department of the City of New York, emergencies can reach unbelievable proportions. That's why "eyes in the sky" are critical.

"So we saw the use of drones being able to get up real-time information to the guy making the decisions, the incident commander out in front of a fire and it really came down to I don't want to say life or death, but we kept people from being put in bad places." - Lt. Fred Carlson, FDNY Robotics Unit

And in the most vertical city in the world, Carlson says information for the chiefs on the ground, or the water, or underground, is everything.

"So if the fire makes it all the way up to the roof to have that view is game-changing for them. To be able to really relocate assets depending on what the the needs of the fire are."

FDNY's Robotics Team came to Missoula to see how the US Forest Service and local agencies are using drones, from aerial ignition of burnout operations, to mapping.

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Mel Holtz of Frenchtown Fire Department discusses local drone use with FDNY firefighters outside the USFS Smokejumper Center in Missoula

"Using drones to light fires to fight fires is an amazing idea. And the use of technology for mapping and getting more defined areas of use is an amazing," Carlson observes. "And in the drone world sometimes can fly when manned aviation can't. So you are getting more information around the clock and more efficient packets."

Lt Carlson and his colleagues learned how the mission may differ, but the data advantage from drones in both kinds of fires is crucial.

Just to be clear, we're talking professional drone use here, not you flying illegally and interfering with a fire. The firefighters are all licensed and certified, flying as part of the overall command unit. Even then, the FDNY crews weren't flying their equipment during the Montana training.

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It's a continuation of the relationship that's been fostered over 20 years.

"They helped us out after 9-11 and we've built that relationship over the years and it's been through incident management teams and the ICS program in general," Carlson told MTN News. "But we started with our drone program in New York few years ago, and the Forestry Service is doing their drone program which is spilling into the local agencies as well."

Mel Holtz with the Frenchtown Rural Fire District says he found the information exchange very worthwhile.

"This is again an opportunity to learn from some of the best pilots over there that are using these in real emergencies. So we're starting our drone program over at Frenchtown, so it's amazing to opportunity for us to talk with them. They've probably been through it all. So we're learning a lot." - Mel Holtz, Frenchtown Rural Fire District

While the firefighters have used a variety of commercial drones, increasingly their aircraft are becoming specialized for different emergencies.