LAFD drone plan clears hur­dle

Los Angeles Times - - CITY & STATE - By Emily Alpert Reyes emily.alpert@la­times.com

The Los An­ge­les Fire Depart­ment could soon seek fed­eral per­mis­sion to fly drones, a tool that of­fi­cials say could help them track down miss­ing hik­ers, gauge the risks in burn­ing build­ings and search con­fined spa­ces.

A Los An­ge­les City Coun­cil com­mit­tee voted Tues­day to al­low the depart­ment to start seek­ing Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion au­tho­riza­tion to use “un­manned ae­rial sys­tems,” de­spite ob­jec­tions from groups con­cerned about pri­vacy rights. That de­ci­sion now heads to the en­tire coun­cil for ap­proval.

“I think there’s a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity to save lives,” said Coun­cil­man Mitch Eng­lan­der, who has cham­pi­oned the idea.

Fire of­fi­cials say no drones will be launched, how­ever, un­til the Board of Fire Com­mis­sion­ers and the City Coun­cil ap­prove a pol­icy out­lin­ing how they can be used. The Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia has al­ready raised con­cerns about draft guide­lines, say­ing they do not go far enough to ad­dress “se­ri­ous pri­vacy con­cerns.”

Fire Depart­ment of­fi­cials say the drones will be used to as­sess haz­ards on the spot, not for po­lice sur­veil­lance.

At the Tues­day com­mit­tee meeting, LAFD Bat­tal­ion Chief Richard Fields said that the depart­ment too of­ten has had to rely on “sim­ple ra­dio com­mu­ni­ca­tions” to fig­ure out where to put its fire­fight­ers and equip­ment to res­cue peo­ple or snuff out fires.

Fields rat­tled off sev­eral sit­u­a­tions that might call for drones, in­clud­ing eval­u­at­ing the dan­gers in build­ings at risk of col­lapse. Eng­lan­der said drones could also be equipped to com­mu­ni­cate with stranded hik­ers, al­low­ing res­cuers to ask, “‘What do you need? What’s hurt­ing? How are you do­ing?’ ”

The Fire Depart­ment also said the tech­nol­ogy could be used for train­ing. “We wouldn’t want to squan­der the possibilities of drone tech­nol­ogy,” said Coun­cil­man Mitch O’Far­rell, one of four law­mak­ers who backed the plan Tues­day.

The grow­ing use of drones has also alarmed groups con­cerned about war­rant­less sur­veil­lance.

Hamid Khan, founder of the Stop LAPD Spy­ing Coali­tion, ar­gued that al­low­ing the Fire Depart­ment to use drones would end up pro­vid­ing a “back­door” way to share in­for­ma­tion with po­lice. The group protested when the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment got a pair of drones, which have been locked up since then, and has also op­posed drone use by the Los An­ge­les County Sher­iff ’s Depart­ment.

The ACLU of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia warned that the Fire Depart­ment’s draft rules did not spell out what pur­poses would be al­lowed.

“We can’t pro­tect against mis­sion creep be­cause we don’t know what the mis­sion is to start with,” staff at­tor­ney Me­lanie Ochoa said.

The ACLU also rec­om­mended that the Fire Depart­ment write rules for re­tain­ing and shar­ing footage from drones, in­clude over­sight and ac­count­abil­ity mea­sures such as an in­de­pen­dent mon­i­tor to track drone use, and re­quire that any fu­ture changes to the pol­icy be vet­ted by the Board of Fire Com­mis­sion­ers and the City Coun­cil.

Fire Depart­ment of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that it will cost $40,000 to buy a first set of six drones with cam­eras, in­frared de­tec­tion and sup­port­ing equip­ment, us­ing money do­nated by the L.A. Fire Depart­ment Foun­da­tion.

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