Menlo Park fire district gets OK from FAA to operate drone


It's taken almost two years, but the Menlo Park Fire Protection District is now authorized by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate a portable drone to help in observing a fire or other emergency situation from the air.

The FAA issued the fire district a certificate to operate its drone on May 18, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said in a statement.

The district is in possession of one drone donated by manufacturer DJI (based in Shenzhen, China, according to the DJI website), and plans to buy two more from DJI, Chief Schapelhouman said.

The district's 2016-17 budget has allocated $25,000 for drone operations, the chief said, including equipment and the training of six teams of two -- a pilot and an observer.

The donated drone, a model DJI Phantom 2 Vision, can carry a camera and download images of the scene to firefighters' tablet computers and/or smart phones. While it can stay airborne for just 25 minutes, the key is the first 10 to 20 minutes, a period in which many fires are knocked down, the chief said.

The other two drones the district is considering -- a DJI Inspire One and a DJI Phantom 4 -- would "possess unique capabilities that will expand our operational profile," the chief said. Those capabilities include a thermal imaging camera, visual tracking of moving objects, collision avoidance and a capacity to carry a payload of up to 6 pounds, he said.

If another agency were to borrow a fire district drone -- a law enforcement agency, for example, for an active-shooter or hostage situation -- a fire district team would accompany the drone and operate it on the scene, the chief has said.

While the videos from the fire district's drone will, in general, be public information, a law enforcement agency can challenge or override that policy, the chief said. Fires of suspicious origin can become crime scenes, for example.

The Menlo Park district has refused to help law enforcement agencies in the past. The district has keys to many buildings, including apartment buildings, and on occasion, police have asked for them, the chief said. With few exceptions, they're refused, he said. "We see how it could change or taint our reputation in the community," he said. "We're kind of the non-punitive entity, if you know what I mean."

If a drone were to overfly a patch of marijuana, however, police would be told, he said. "It's not as if we're going to turn a blind eye too blatant criminal activity," the chief said. "We're not going to do that."

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