FDNY Employs Video for Quick Decisions

Seeking safer solutions, New York City’s Fire Department’s video intel evolves over the years
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A still image of CTU video shot from the top of another building. FDNY responded to this four-alarm fire engulfing the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in Manhatten May 1, 2016.

NEW YORK CITY–In early April, an abnormally windy day across New York City triggered a partial top floor collapse of a building under construction. No one was in the building at the time, but the firefighters who responded still had to monitor the situation until the city’s Department of Buildings could inspect the structure.

For second alarm fires and up, or big emergencies like building collapses, explosions, transit incidents or complex rescue situations, the FDNY deploys a team known as the Command Tactical Unit—whose job is to monitor emergencies in progress by shooting video, which streams live to the onsite Incident Commander (IC), the operations center and remotely to the Department’s senior chiefs and executives.

On the day of the partial floor collapse, FDNY deployed CTU personnel to the collapsed portion of the building and streamed live video back to the IC, who ordered all firefighters off the building and to leave the camera to monitor the collapsed section.

“It’s not a really dramatic story but it’s a homerun for us when we can pull our firefighters out of the building, and only put our cameras at risk,” said Tim Herlocker, ‎director, Emergency Operations Center at FDNY.

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One of the iPhones and Verizon MiFi's used by CTU videographers

The CTU videographers are experienced firefighters who understand the tactical decisions that must be made by the IC. CTU streams video of emergency situations to ICs and senior chiefs by bonding an AT&T iPhone to a Verizon MiFi internet hot spot device, which uses Kencast’s video delivery service to broadcast high definition video at 30 fps. ICs and senior chiefs can view the video on any mobile device or computer.

Streaming live video from emergency scenes provides the IC visual information to make lifesaving decisions. For senior chiefs back at headquarters, it helps to answer the questions, “Do we need more support? And do I need to go there?”

In addition to the live streaming, all video is stored in the cloud, allowing safety, training and operational units to review and use for training videos as well.


Since 9/11, the FDNY has sought new ways to improve situational awareness during emergencies for the department’s senior management and ICs. Although FDNY has access to many fixed traffic and security cameras as well as raw video feeds from news choppers and the NYPD, Herlocker acknowledged that those resources only went so far. ICs needed a closer view.

In 2008, the CTU was created to get close-up views of buildings on fire; areas like “the rear of the fire buildings, and where possible, a roof view,” Herlocker said. “These were the critical sides of the fire building that the IC could not see from the command post.”

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One of the old FDNY Pelican cases outfitted with a Panasonic security camera, a Rajant wireless node and a large battery.

Before iPhones, CTUs used fixed-site Panasonic security cameras using a Rajant wireless node and a large battery installed in a FDNY custom-made Pelican case. While using the security cameras in the Pelican cases gave ICs a better view, streaming was inadequate—with 3G cell service delivering only 3 fps on good days. In addition, maintaining the camera equipment was getting expensive, according to Herlocker.

“We were building the camera cases ourselves and it was still costing us about $8,500 per case,” he said. “We broke a lot of cases at fires.”

By 2014, 4G LTE became more commonplace so the department began using JVC Adixxion cameras linked to a Verizon MiFi using UStream cloud to transport video back to command. With this substantial upgrade, for the first time senior officials could watch video on the go, according to Herlocker, adding that the department only recently decided to use iPhones as the cameras and Kencast’s video streaming service.


With the goal of constantly improving aerial views during emergency situations, the FDNY’s only current option is to use a nearby rooftop or rely on outside helicopter support (using a video camera from a tower ladder isn’t feasible because the environment is too wet and smoke hurts visibility).

The FDNY is currently in the process of obtaining an FAA clearance to operate a quadcopter drone/UAS (unmanned aerial system) in the city. One UAS being considered is Hoverfly Technologies’ LiveSky quadcopter drone, which includes a tether to connect power and data to a ground power operator unit, allowing the drone to stay aerial for an unlimited amount of time. The LiveSky tethered-power UAS uses the GoPro Hero 3+ or Hoverfly’s own full HD camera, along with infrared thermal imaging capability. Since lateral movements aren’t possible with a tether, altitude is controlled from a wireless handheld remote controller. “Think of it as a 200-foot pole camera,” Herlocker said.

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Shown in FDNY colors is Hoverfly Technologies' LiveSky quadcopter tethered-drone.