By Natalie Duddridge

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – For the last five years, the FDNY has been using drones to improve its response time and accuracy and, most importantly, save lives.

CBS2’s Natalie Duddridge got a behind the scenes look at how the technology is transforming firefighting.

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Joe Cruz and Angelica Chomicki are drone pilots with the FDNY Command Tactical Unit. Their job is to assist firefighters from the air.

“The drone is providing a monitor of everything that is happening,” Cruz said.

“See how the firefighter’s going up the ladder? I have a visual on him, where the command post can now, visually, see him,” said Chomicki.

Duddridge got a look at a fire simulation at the FDNY training academy on Randall’s Island.

The drones record and stream live video back to a commander on the ground, which helps determine where to send crews and resources.

“Recently, we had a fire in a junkyard and it was taking some time in order for this fire to go out, and we had multiple tower ladders set up, putting a lot of water and a lot of time into this,” said Lt. Fred Carlson of the FDNY Robotics Unit.

So the team launched an infrared camera.

“Once we got the drone up, using the thermal imaging, we were able to tell that the fire was not where the smoke was coming out. It was actually burning below the cars a few rows over,” Carlson said.

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They were able to put it out much faster.

The drone team also responds to building collapses, train and crane accidents, water rescues and incidents involving hazardous materials.

“We’re able to put the drone into positions that we may not be able to put a human being,” said Andrew Sharf of the FDNY Command Tactical Unit.

Before the drone is launched, there’s a checklist the team must follow. They contact air traffic control to let them know how high and where the drone is flying.

“Flying drones in New York City is illegal for the most part,” Carlson said. “Our airspace is some of the busiest in the world.”

It’s also among the most restricted.

The FDNY’s drone program was borne out of the September 11th attacks, and evolved to give first responders more accurate and immediate information.

“On a whole, the use of drones, or UAS, unmanned aerial systems, is something that’s being adopted nationwide and worldwide. It’s not here to take people’s jobs away. It’s to make their jobs safer,” Carlson said.

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What started as an FDNY pilot project seems to have landed a permanent spot.

Natalie Duddridge