Spokane’s fleet of firefighting drones will now be used by police investigators surveying the scenes of deadly car crashes.
The City Council gave its consent Monday night for crash investigators, who had previously been suspended from fire engine ladders to photograph wrecks, to use the fire department’s three (soon to be four) devices to take the pictures instead.
“It’s dangerous,” said City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the city’s public safety committee and brought the measure forward for a vote. “That’s where the drone is useful. Rather than dangling an officer over a roadway, you can use a drone to look at all aspects of the (scene).”
The fire department received approval from the City Council in May 2016 to begin using drones for training and life-threatening situations. Since then, the agency has spent roughly $28,000 on acquiring devices and all the accessories needed to fly them. The city’s laws on surveillance require council approval any time a device is used for a new purpose, like a fatal crash investigation.
Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said the department would limit its police assistance only to fatal crashes.
“We’re still very narrow in scope,” Schaeffer said. “We’re not taking on a law enforcement mission. We’re strictly using them for that limited window.”
Ten Spokane firefighters are trained and licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the department’s drones, said Fire Lt. Todd Powell, the program’s manager. The pilots would work in concert with the investigators to get them the images they need, just as they would in any other operation within the fire department, he said.
“That’s typical of any situation, whether it’s for the cops or an incident commander,” Powell said. “We ask, ‘What do you need from us? What are you trying to see here?’ ”
Powell said the department’s pilots had already assisted on a crash that killed a pedestrian at Division Street and Third Avenue last month. Police and fire worked quickly to bring the resolution to the council to make sure future collaborations adhered to city law, Powell said.
The department is looking to expand its capabilities with the flying devices. Powell said they have clearance to operate near Spokane International Airport and Felts Field, and are currently seeking approval to fly beyond a pilot’s line of sight, which is currently outlawed under federal law.
“That’s a pretty severe limitation,” said Powell. “What if we’re doing a water rescue, and the person goes around a bend in the river?”
Kinnear said she’s working on legislation that would clarify the rules and penalties for flying a drone near protected airspace. Federal law prohibits flying drones at certain elevations near airports without prior approval from air traffic controllers.
With more drones in the sky, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have called for policies limiting how law enforcement and emergency services may use the devices to collect data, and where it should be stored. Powell said the department’s drone operators receive training on flying and recording in a way that protects individual rights.
“The reality is, they’re a phenomenal tool,” Powell said. “Spying on anybody is the last thing we’d consider at the scene of an emergency.”
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