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Drones may soon be joining the LA Fire Department


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There are some new firefighters coming to town. They're tiny and they fly. Yes, drones could soon be joining the L.A. Fire Department. 

Drone flying in the parking lot of 3D Robotics.
Drone flying in the parking lot of 3D Robotics.
John Rosman/Fronteras Desk

On Tuesday, the city's Board of Fire Commissioners approved the use of UAVs or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. And we had a burning question for L.A. Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas: Why drones?

"The main reason is to increase firefighter safety. And some good examples might be, a long duration structure fire. By long duration I mean 30 minutes or longer. We could put up a UAV in the air and then have the image transmitted down to the command post, down in the street. The incident commander can then determine whether or not we should deploy firefighters to ventilate the roof. That's a good example of how they would enhance firefighter safety."

Other fire departments like New York's and Austin's have already implemented UAVs into their fire program. The Los Angeles Department has been in touch with these departments while molding their program and has elected to take a conservative approach. As a result, they're requiring pilot's licenses for those maneuvering the UAV's. "As we speak, we have 17 LAFD firefighters who are qualified to operate UAV's," Chief Terrazas told A Martinez.

The drones LAFD is looking to use aren't your standard run of the mill UAVs. They're looking at three different models which will range in sizes and abilities. "The simplest model, you could purchase it in store," said Chief Terrazas, "The more complex ones are bigger, they can carry equipment, they can do different things."

But don't think any hobbyist could come in and fly their drone for these missions. The department is planning on distinguishing their UAVs with clear identifiers and painting them "LAFD red."

One of the main concerns when it comes to drones in the hands of government agencies is privacy. It's something the department wanted to be proactive in addressing.

"We obtained ACLU literature about their concerns over privacy. That's the main obstacle and we developed our policy to address those concerns. The main reason we're doing this is to enhance firefighter safety during emergencies. This provides us real-time situational awareness to make good tactical decisions. The purpose is not surveillance and we're very careful about anything, about any purpose that may be perceived as surveillance."

As outlined in the report commissioned by Chief Terrazas and presented to the L.A. Fire Commissioners on Tuesday, the purpose for these UAVs is for training and structural fires, a point the Fire Chief really drove home. But what about all that data the UAVs will record? Will it be used or dumped?

"If we go to a fire and we film from the sky some good footage that we think will be valuable in future training sessions, we're going to keep it and we're going to use it as training material. However, if there's footage that has no value beyond what I just stated, we're going to look at what a policy would be to destroy it. We don't want to be a permanent storage facility for this type of footage."

Now that the board has given the drones a green light, the next steps include presenting the report to the Public Safety Committee, the City Council and then securing permits with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration.) They're intending to be operational within 60 days.

To hear more about the LAFD's drone plans, click the blue play button above.