a draganflyer X6 drone
Draganflyer X6 drone carrying a thermal infrared camera. Courtesy Draganfly Innovations Inc.

A City Council committee Wednesday approved proposed guidelines for a drone program being developed by the Los Angeles Fire Department amid controversy over use of the devices by public agencies.

The guidelines, which were approved unanimously by the Public Safety Committee, formalize rules for the fire department’s use of drones, or unmanned aerial systems. The City Council in July cleared the way for the LAFD to develop the program.

According to the guidelines, drones would be used by the LAFD in “emergencies where the complexity or scope of the incident require critical decision making on the part of the incident commander and/or pose a significant risk to firefighter safety (that) could require the use of a department UAS.”

The guidelines also say drones would be used, but are not limited to, situations involving hazardous materials, confined space rescues, high/low angle rescues, swift or moving water rescues “or any other expanded or extended incident.” A process for requesting a drone is also outlined.

The guidelines also note that of the nearly 470,000 calls for service the department responds to annually, about 99 percent would not necessitate use of a drone.

The LAFD’s program comes as both the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Police Department have also been pursuing drones over the objection of civil liberties groups that say their use can suffer “mission creep” and the devices will one day be armed with weapons or used to conduct mass surveillance.

The Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners recently approved the guidelines for a proposed drone program by the LAPD despite that the overwhelming majority of the public feedback it received on the program was opposed to it.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Civilian Oversight Commission recently voted 5-4 to call for the grounding of the LASD’s drone program. But that vote is not binding on the department, and Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the agency will continue using the devices.

The LAFD guidelines address privacy concerns and state the devices would not be used to monitor members of the public or provide surveillance for law enforcement.

Melanie Ochoa, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the organization was opposed to the LAFD using drones and that the guidelines were not thorough enough to prevent encroachment on civil liberties.

“While we appreciate that its stated goal is not surveillance, you cannot protect against surveillance solely through a mission statement. The policy still fails to create limits on the creation and use of footage necessary to prevent surveillance uses,” Ochoa told the committee.

“For instance, it does not prohibit recording in densely populated areas or at protests. The more it allows drone use in ways that it will record the public, the more potential it has to be used as a surveillance tool,” she said.

Councilman Mitchell Englander, who is chair of the committee, praised the guidelines.

“I know there’s been a lot of discussion and a lot of conversation about this. I think in terms of what you guys have come up with in terms of a policy, in what it would be used for and what it wouldn’t be used for, is probably the best in the nation, quite frankly,” he told a member of the LAFD who presented the guidelines to the committee.

–City News Service

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