Drones have sometimes been a hazard for firefighters, especially when hobbyists fly them over brush fires that are being attacked by water- and retardant-dropping manned aircraft. The presence of a hobby drone has been known to ground firefighting planes and helicopters because officials fear the remotely operated devices can collide with manned aircraft and bring them down, as a bird strike could do.

But these days the Los Angeles Fire Department is looking to join the club. It's seeking to become one of the first fire departments in the nation to put what it calls “unmanned aerial systems” in the air to help firefighters on the ground. If the City Council approves the idea, the LAFD will seek Federal Aviation Administration approval for a drone program. Only the Ventura County department has the kind of national “certificate of waiver/authorization” being sought, according to a recent report from LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas.

The feasibility report, requested by Councilman Mitch Englander in April, concludes that drones could have limited use in the department, including for training, operational planning, damage assessment, identifying possible hazardous materials and serving as virtual spotters during river and hiker rescues. The report was scheduled to be heard Tuesday by the City Council. “The primary use for department UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] operations will be for training purposes and situational awareness during structure fires,” LAFD spokesman Jeremy Oberstein said via email.

Englander, chair of the Public Safety Committee, is proposing that the LAFD be allowed to test drones to see if they fit in with its mission. “This motion will allow the fire department to begin testing the efficacy of drones in emergency circumstances and, in coordination with the City Attorney's office, determine the appropriate guidelines and parameters for their use,” he said via email.

With the council's green light — and the FAA's blessing — the department would operate six drones, each with its own turf, according to the chief's report. The report also addresses long-held concerns about privacy and the collection of digital images that might reveal situations folks never intended to be public. The department would archive video footage and keep it locked up unless, for example, a suspected arsonist was captured on video and authorities needed the public's help, according to the report. “During training purposes, UAS operations will be limited to observing department personnel,” the report states.

The program would require trained, FAA-licensed operators. An exact dollar amount was not attached to the program, and the drones will not be taking the place of LAFD pilots. According to the chief's report, “While there could be significant cost savings utilizing a UAV at incidents, it should be noted that any program using this technology will not replace the critical functions and unmatched professionalism of manned LAFD aircraft.”

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