NYPD to use drones to aid swimmers in trouble at city beaches amid lifeguard shortage


  • Drones
  • Monday, 27 May 2024

A boy looks out to sea at Coney Island on May 25, 2024 in New York City. Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, with beaches opening for the season. New York changed some of its lifeguard requirements to address an ongoing national lifeguard shortage. — AFP

Remote-controlled drones equipped with flotation devices will be helping New York City lifeguards rescue swimmers in distress this summer season, city officials said Saturday.

The addition of drones comes as the city faces staff shortages among lifeguards that is expected to keep several miles of city beaches closed this holiday weekend.

The NYPD, FDNY, city Parks Department and other agencies are working together to bring the drones to the beaches and keep an aerial eye out for swimmers in trouble starting this weekend, officials confirmed.

NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry announced the plan on X Friday, calling the use of drones in this manner “game changing.”

“Thanks to @nycmayor and @nypdpc, the @NYPDnews is embracing technology that could save lives,” Daughtry wrote as he posted a video on how drones will help swimmers in trouble. “This summer, we will be utilizing drones that can deploy a floatation device to swimmers in distress. We can also use these drones to communicate with the swimmer in distress while help is on the way.

“Enjoy the sunshine, NYC. We have the Watch,” he wrote.

An email to the NYPD on more specifics of the plan and where the drones would be deployed was not immediately returned. An email to the Mayor’s office for comment about the use of the drones was also not returned.

The idea to use drones at city beaches was formulated last summer when the city used the remote-controlled flyers to watch out for sharks near the shoreline.

Fearing shark attacks like the one that befell swimmer Tatyana Koltunyuk, the city began patrolling the waters off the beaches by flying camera-equipped drones over the Rockaways in August.

Drones spotted six sharks in their scans of the ocean during the weeks they were deployed, but none of the sharks came close to the shoreline, officials said.

The drone patrol exposed a far more common danger: New York City beachgoers often struggle in the water, officials said.

Twenty-one people died in New York City of accidental drowning in 2021, according to the most recent city statistics.

The near-drownings spotted with the drones inspired the city to consider equipping some of their fliers with automatic flotation devices.

Similar programs are in place in other states, including Michigan, California and Florida.

Mayor Adams announced the pilot program in February.

“They’re going to start out with Coney Island, and they’re going to grow from there,” Adams said at the time. “I think it can be a great addition to saving the lives of those that we lose over the summer.”

The drones will not be replacing lifeguards, and only be used as an assistance tool, city officials said.

“By utilizing drones at our beaches, we can help swimmers in distress, monitor for sharks, help spot a missing child on a beach, and more,” a mayoral spokesman told the Daily News. “We continue to work to ensure New Yorkers can safely enjoy our beaches this summer.”

If a swimmer is seen struggling in the waves, a drone can be flown over and alert them that help is on the way. The drone will also drop a flotation device that the swimmer can grab onto. The flotation device inflates once it hits the water, officials said.

City officials last week said “some segments” of the city’s 14-mile shoreline will be closed this Memorial Day weekend due to lifeguard shortages.

Mayor Adams on Friday announced the city will relax some test requirements for lifeguards in a bid to get more candidates. The city has 230 lifeguards that will be manning beaches this holiday weekend – well short of the roughly 600 lifeguards required to fully staff all stretches of city beaches.

The Parks Department’s press office said Friday that “as with every summer, lifeguard assignments along beaches are made based on daily staffing and other site conditions.” – New York Daily News/Tribune News Service

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