London Firefighters Used Drone to Battle Grenfell Tower Blaze

After firefighters battled the blaze at Grenfell Tower in London early on Wednesday, they turned to a drone for help surveying the damage.

Kent Fire and Rescue Service, a department about an hour southeast of London, supplied its drone to the London Fire Brigade, the Kent department said in a statement. As of Friday at noon local time, at least 30 people had died in the fire in the 24-floor tower, and the number will likely rise, according to London’s Metropolitan Police. Authorities said they had found no evidence to suggest that someone intentionally started the fire.

A spokesman for the London Fire Brigade tells Newsweek that responders are using the drone “to help monitor the building.”

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The Kent fire department acquired its drone in 2015. The aircraft carries a high-definition camera that provides a live video feed and can detect body heat through thermal imaging technology.

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, are growing increasingly popular for use by fire departments in the United States and United Kingdom. The aviation authorities in both countries must grant permission for use.

In 2007, the West Midlands Fire Service, in Birmingham, a few hours northwest of London, was the first fire-and-rescue service in the United Kingdom to use drones, the department has said. It first used a drone to survey a warehouse site where a blaze had killed four firefighters in November 2007. As of last August, it had three drones, according to a response to a Freedom of Information Act request it published online. The department said it was using an Aeryon SkyRanger, with high-definition still and video imaging and infrared technology, and a DJI Phantom carrying a GoPro camera. It said it was using those for “operational incidents and training to support the on-scene commanders [with] decision-making.” 

Aeryon, the drone company, whose customers also include the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, situated about four-and-a-half hours northwest of London, said in January that fire departments worldwide are increasingly acquiring drones. Aeryon cited a report from last November that said some 43 fire and rescue agencies had tested its product. The Manchester fire department’s drone, which it acquired in 2015, can fly up to 50 minutes, as high as 400 feet, and as far as 3.1 miles from the controller.

Drones are useful when a structure is too risky for firefighters to access. “After a fire, a building can sometimes be too dangerous,” Adam Green, station manager at the Kent Fire and Rescue Service, told a local outlet last September. “But for investigation work, you might be able to see where it started from the burn pattern from the air.”

In the U.S., approximately 350 fire departments are using drones, according to Matt Sloane, CEO and co-founder of Skyfire Consulting, which helps departments set up drone programs. That number is still a tiny fraction of the 20,000 to 30,000 fire departments in the country, Sloane points out, but the amount is more than when his company launched in 2014. As for Federal Aviation Administration regulations, he says, “there is still a fairly complex process in place to be able to use them,” but they’re “definitely looking to help departments make this a reality.”

The fire departments in Austin, Texas, and Menlo Park, California (home to technology giants such as Facebook), have prominent drone programs, and one in New York City used a drone to respond to a fire for the first time in March. The city said the drone, which it used for a blaze in a six-story building, costs $85,000, weighs 8 pounds and has both a high-definition and an infrared camera. Unlike typical drones, New York’s is tethered with a small electric cable, which gives it unlimited flying time.

06_16_Grenfell_London_drones Firefighters use a hydraulic lift to inspect the Grenfell Tower block that was destroyed by fire in West London, on June 16. Firefighters also used a drone to survey the incident. Hannah McKay/REUTERS

Firefighters are not the only first responders using drones in the U.S. and U.K. As of January 2016, in England and Wales, more than a quarter of the 43 police forces were considering using drones for operations such as monitoring protests and assisting in investigations and searches, The Times reported. Such uses have been controversial, including in Baltimore, where people have complained about law enforcement monitoring the public from above.

Sloane, of Skyfire Consulting, which has worked with 45 fire and police departments, says he understands those worries. “We definitely see some of that resistance, as far as privacy is concerned, on the law-enforcement side,” he says. “One of the things that we tell our clients right at the beginning is get public support on this.” He adds, “There is a lot less controversy when it comes to fire departments, because I think everybody realizes that the fire department is there to help.”

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