At the wheel of the Atlantic Beach Fire Rescue Hummer, Dave Weinberger pulled onto the beach off Ocean Boulevard, in Atlantic Beach, and then partially deflated the vehicle’s tires for better traction on the sand.
Weinberger, a photographer and one of the emergency response unit’s drone pilots, found an area where there were no people, put down an orange mat with an H in the middle, and surrounded it with several orange cones to keep the curious away from the spot where one of three rescue unit drones would be taking off and landing.
This was a demonstration, but if had been an actual emergency, caution tape would have gone up as well, and an observer would have accompanied Weinberger to watch him operate the drone and help with any problems.
Weinberger placed a Parrot Anafi thermal drone on the orange mat, set up the controls and sent the device flying out over the Atlantic, showing a reporter the aerial images the drone was capturing.
“We have two primary uses for our drones,” he had explained in the rescue unit’s garage before heading out to the beach. “The main one is for marine rescue. [If] someone is caught in the ocean [and] we want to know where they are, we can get a drone out there a lot quicker than the Coast Guard could get a helicopter in the air or Nassau County police.
“The second is for fire response,” Weinberger added. “We do mutual-aid calls, with Lawrence-Cedarhurst Fire Department and Long Beach. We dispatch the drones when they call for them, so they can use it for an overhead view of what’s going on and give them a little situational awareness of where the fire is, where it’s spreading to, if it’s been suppressed.”
Atlantic Beach Rescue, a 38-member, all-volunteer first responder unit, established its drone unit three years ago, prompted by a 2016 water fatality, when Atlantic Beach resident Gary Turkel went missing on a paddleboard. His body was found 30 miles offshore.
“To us as first responders and rescuers, it was particularly frustrating,” said the unit’s assistant chief, Jonathan Kohan. “We thought we could have done a better job, and being forward-thinking, we believe if we had an aerial asset, we … might have been able to effectuate a more positive outcome — or we hope we might have.”
So the unit enlisted the help of Weinberger, who uses drones for his photography, and Ricardo Spadola, an emergency medical technician and Atlantic Beach Rescue board member with a professional background in technology. They became the drone unit, and are now certified Federal Aviation Administration drone pilots.
“To me, drones have always been interesting, because there’s a different perspective — we can get a different view of the world,” Spadola said, noting that the value of the devices for fires, mutual aid and searching for people in distress is to “get that intelligence that, otherwise, in years past, we’d have to rely on other assets that may or may not always be available at the time of need. We can get up in the air in a matter of minutes.”
Kohan, Spadola and Weinberger all highlighted the drone unit’s response to a commercial building fire in Long Beach in May, when a blaze tore through Sorrento’s restaurant and Abyss Tattoo.
“In that case, we were requested about a half-hour, 45 minutes into the call, I believe, and that call went for four or five hours,” Weinberger said. “[We] kept an eye on what’s going on, to see what progress they were making with the fire, and using the thermal camera to see if they had suppressed the fire or if it was still popping up.”
The drones can legally fly as high as 400 feet — a national standard — and are kept within 1,200 feet of their operator. Communication between the drone operator and an incident command post is ongoing throughout a response.
“This is cutting-edge technology,” Kohan said, adding that the drone unit has also trained with the New York City Police Department’s Technical Assistance Response Unit, Suffolk County’s Urban Search and Rescue and the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.
“The Fire Department of the City of New York trained us to do this. We’re grateful for the opportunity to train with them. We think that this is the future — we know it’s the future — the Coast Guard uses us, and we’re proud to be on the cutting edge of this.”
Atlantic Beach Fire Rescue is always on the look out for people with “heart,” Kohan said. It can be reached at (516) 371-2348.