Could drones endanger the lives of firefighters in major blazes? Authorities Wednesday said it’s very possible, and they demanded new federal rules to crack down on drone operators who fly their pilotless aircraft too close to emergency operations.
Federal, state and local officials joined Los Angeles’ fire chief in calling for regulations to prevent drones from getting near fires, potentially interfering with firefighting and other emergency operations.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, said he is urging the Federal Aviation Administration to “put the issue of drones interfering with firefighting operations front and center.”
Schiff said he sent a letter to the FAA asking the agency to “study technological solutions to prevent drones from flying in restricted air space.”
“As often happens, this is a case … in which technology has gotten far ahead of regulation, and we’re scrambling both locally and at the federal level to catch up,” Schiff said.
The congressman was joined on a helipad atop Los Angeles City Hall East by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, who co-authored SB 167, which he said “would drastically increase the penalties for those who interfere with firefighting efforts with a drone” along with “the possibility of jail time for the most extreme cases.”
Another bill, SB 168, which he also co-authored with Sen. Ted Gaines, R- El Dorado, would “grant immunity to our first responders if they take a drone down,” Gatto said.
“It’s hard to believe that those who take a drone down could actually be subject to liability,” the lawmaker said.
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson said he and Councilman Mitch Englander have introduced a motion to regulate drone use in the city. The measure, which will be considered at the council’s Tuesday meeting, “basically ensures that you cannot use a drone during emergency situations and one cannot be flown within five miles of an airport within the city,” he said.
Englander said drone use has grown in popularity, and sometimes “operators of (drones) fly them in dangerous ways, such as operating them over crowds or in the flight paths of manned aircraft.”
“Fire departments across the state have been forced to … postpone airdrops on fires, severely hampering fire suppression efforts, thereby threatening lives and property,” Englander said.
“It’s important to educate the public about drones and safe operations. Using the drones over fires poses a threat to the safety and of aircraft and manned firefighting aircraft,” he said. “A midair collision with a drone can cause a helicopter or aircraft to crash.”
Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said he wants to “remind drone operators, if you fly, we can’t.”
“Drones present a real problem when flown near brush fires,” he said. “In fact, the United States Forest Service has tallied 13 wildfires in which drones interfered with firefighting aircraft this year, 11 since late June.”
He added that “fortunately, we have not had to deal with that issue here in Los Angeles, and we’re here today to make sure that does not change.”
— City News Service