Since becoming one of the first major metropolitan fire departments to have a significant drone program and conducting its first aerial mission during the 2017 Skirball fire, the Los Angeles Fire Department has used the devices in at least 175 incident-related missions, according to a report presented Tuesday to the Board of Fire Commissioners.
The report from LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas outlines the department's drone program from its inception through March 5, including that it started a Pilots Training and Ground School Course last month designed to teach flight skills, concepts and legal aspects that LAFD members will be required to perform unmanned aerial system pilots.
LAFD Battalion Chief Richard Fields, who is the program coordinator, told the commission that the LAFD's drone program has become a national standard.
"We are mentioned in literature, we are mentioned in conferences, we are mentioned across the city family as well as the outside agencies," he said.
Drones operated by municipalities have proven to be controversial due to concerns over privacy and the fact they could be used to conduct surveillance on residents. The Los Angeles Police Department received two donated drones in 2014 but soon dropped any plans to deploy them due to public objections before reviving efforts on a drone program in 2017, not long after the LAFD announced its program.
The LAPD first deployed a drone in January during a barricade situation. The approval of the LAFD's and LAPD's programs came over the objection of the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups, which raised concerns that the drones could be used to conduct surveillance on residents.
"We reject the use of these drones because what you have, even in this policy document, is gaping holes for mission creep. So the issue is not if, but when, and we have seen that happen over and over again," Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition said during a 2017 City Council committee meeting on the LAFD program.
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The LAFD's program outlines that the drones are not to be used to monitor or provide surveillance for law enforcement.
According to the LAFD report, the first class of the Pilots Training and Ground School Course includes 17 department members who earned their LAFD flight credentials through two days of training and a third day of tests. The current fleet consists of nine drones.
"Today, the LAFD UAS program's development and implementation processes stand as a national exemplar and the program's leaders have inked their names among the subject matter's experts," Terrazas wrote in the report, which the board voted unanimously to approve.