After years of planning, San Francisco’s fire department finally expects to purchase a drone and send it soaring into the skies early next year.
In 2017, The City’s technology committee adopted a citywide drone policy that set rules for how departments can deploy them, including having to adopt a specific drone use policy of their own.
Five departments elected to participate, and the policy was recently updated to add two more city departments, including Public Works.
The Fire Commission has talked about putting a drone up in the air since 2017, but only now does it appear like that will happen. The drone could be used for tasks such as monitoring fires and helping in search and rescue operations.
“It’s amazing to me that things take years. The most obvious needs, in order for them to be met, it takes years,” said Francee Covington, a member of the Fire Commission, during its Dec. 11 meeting on the drone update.
The commission approved its drone use policy earlier this year, but the debate over the policy took time. It required approval from other agencies including the Committee on Information and Technology.
There were issues around the commission’s request to use the drone at night with lights — a request that ultimately was granted in cases of emergency. The policy also allows the department to bypass some of the more restrictive requirements in COIT’s citywide policy in the event of an emergency, such as not having to notify owners of historic buildings if flying within 500 feet of them or the Port of San Francisco, when flying over the waterfront.
Since The City is using a federal homeland security grant to purchase the drone, the policy also required federal review.
“This has been a very steep learning curve for us,” Covington said. “I think that we all feel much better and also feel a sense of accomplishment when it takes its maiden voyage.”
Fire Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese has stressed the importance of the drone during commission hearings over the years.
In September 2017, for example, he said the drone use “should be a priority, only because of the life-saving capabilities of these particular devices.”
“I think the moment that an incident happened that we could have used the drone and we didn’t use the drone and we lose a life, I think that is bad on us,” he said.
Assistant Deputy Chief of Homeland Security Michael Cochrane told the commission at the Dec. 11 meeting that “we are moving forward.” He expects to have a drone up and flying as needed in the “first quarter of next year.”
The City is now expected to post a request for proposals for the purchase of a drone from companies who make them.
The Fire Department plans to train personnel to have the authority to fly the drone, as is required.
“A general order went out on Nov. 1 looking for members of the department that want to become pilots,” Cochrane said.
He said they have come up with 14 members, who are expected to begin training next month. Ultimately they will need to obtain a a remote pilot certifications from the Federal Aviation Administration.
“Obviously we are going want more [certified pilots] as time progresses,” Cochrane said. “But we have to start somewhere. I think that is a good number right now.”
The Fire Department was among the first five departments authorized to participate in the drone program. The others include the Controller’s Office, Port, Recreation and Park Department and Public Utilities Commission.
Rec and Park adopted its drone use policy in September.
“The department purchased a handful of drones years ago. We’ve never used them, and the tech is old now,” said Rec and Park spokesperson Tamara Aparton. She said if the department were to use drones “it is our decision to use contract service if needed.”
The Port does not own drones.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission owns two drones. Its policy allows for using them to inspect construction sites and for property management. The recently amended policy also allows for “inspection and initial damage assessment during and after a natural disaster, or other emergency event” and it allows for the capturing “of video and still images of SFPUC infrastructure and facilities to produce media for education and outreach purposes.”
In addition to Public Works, the Department of Technology was recently added to the policy for use of drones for video production.
Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said the department has not yet purchased drones for purposes including inspection of construction projects, street trees and bridges or buildings.
To address privacy concerns that were raised in 2017, The City’s drone policy includes provisions around retention and footage that could identify someone.
Drone flights must be posted on a city database 24 hours in advance of a planned flight or, if they occur during an emergency, within 48 hours after the use. Departments may store raw data up to a maximum of one year. Some exemptions are permitted.
“Should information be incidentally collected that could be used to identify persons or private information, the department shall remove all personal identifiable information from raw data footage,” the policy states.