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Firefighting drones could take flight in SF by 2018

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San Francisco Fire Department Commissioners say drones could provide firefighters with improved views during disasters. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco firefighters will be flying drones by the end of the year if several fire commissioners have their way.

The San Francisco Fire Department would use the drones for a bird’s-eye view of burning buildings, disaster scenes and cliff rescues under a draft policy from Assistant Deputy Chief Shane Francisco.

At the Fire Commission last week, Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese pressured Francisco to finish the draft policy so that the commission could vote on it in two months and the department could roll out the drones by 2018.

The department is one of five in San Francisco drafting policies to fly drones.

Drones have raised privacy concerns — like whether the devices would be used to spy on the public — because of the personal information their cameras record from the skies.

But firefighting drones also have a life-saving purpose, potentially saving precious time by guiding firefighters to trapped victims.

“We can do better at saving lives if we have these things, that should be the only question,” Veronese said.

Under his draft policy, Francisco said an independent body within the department would review the footage and black out or pixilate any private information that the drones recorded.

The footage would then be stored and audited annually by The City’s Committee On Information Technology.

“You have a lot of privacy concerns here in The City, people worrying about spying and so forth, but rest assured the policy addresses that and drones would not be permitted for that type of use,” Francisco told the commissioners.

Francisco said the drones would be particularly handy for cliff rescues by providing an aerial view. He estimated that there are about 30 cliff rescues a year.

“If we can locate a victim on a cliff at dusk, maybe there’s more daylight to have time to save him,” he said.

Veronese said one possible solution to the privacy concerns is to not store the drone footage.

“I’m not necessarily convinced that we need to record data for people who are using these devices, especially the ones on the cliff,” Veronese said. “There’s no need to record it, especially in real time.”

The drones would not likely be limited to the skies. The department could also have a full “robotics team” with drones for water rescues in the San Francisco Bay or land drones to search through rubble, Francisco said.

A commercial aviation drone could cost the department as little as $2,000 or as much as $10,000, if the department chooses a drone with night vision or a thermal camera, Francisco said.

San Francisco would not be the first city in the Bay Area to equip itself with drones. Firefighters in Moraga, Alameda and Fremont have the devices, according to Commissioner Francee Covington.

“This is something that we sorely need and we need it soon,” Covington said.

Commission President Ken Cleaveland and Commissioner Michael Hardeman also spoke in support of the drones.

“We will go to bat for you as a commission,” Cleaveland told Francisco. “This is definitely something that we need to have as a department.”

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