Drones Will Supplement Fire, Police Departments in National City, Calif.

From fires in remote locations to searches for missing persons, drones are the latest tool in the city’s public safety arsenal.

by David Hernandez, The San Diego Union-Tribune / July 17, 2018

(TNS) — California's National City police and fire departments have a new type of tool: drones intended to provide officers and firefighters a bird’s-eye view for public safety efforts, such as to find a missing person, document a crime scene or assess a fire.

“The whole mission of this program is to enhance public safety,” police Chief Manuel Rodriguez said at a news conference last week to showcase the three new drones.

One firefighter and five officers are licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the remote-controlled drones. More officers or firefighters may study and train to take the FAA test required to obtain a certificate, said police Sgt. Chris Sullivan, who oversees the new program.

Officers and firefighters deployed one of the drones for the first time on June 28, after a wind-fueled fire broke out in a brushy area between Interstate 805 and Westfield Plaza Bonita mall.

“The Fire Department was having difficulty really trying to locate where that fire was,” Sullivan said.

That’s when the drone was sent into the sky.

It provided an aerial view of the blaze, allowing firefighters to determine the most direct route to reach it, Sullivan said.

A large TV monitor can broadcast the footage captured by the drones, allowing others to see the vantage point the pilot can see on a smaller monitor attached to the remote.

The battalion chief was able to assess the fire and communicate with firefighters to “put them right where they needed to be to make sure that fire was contained,” the sergeant said.

Officials anticipate the drones will be used in other scenarios, such as crime scenes, search-and-rescue missions and SWAT incidents. The drones can be especially helpful when it is less practical or not possible to request the assistance of a sheriff’s helicopter crew, Sullivan said.

“There are times when the speed and the quickness of the quadcopters would suit the situation far more effectively,” he added. He and others prefer the term quadcopters to differentiate from military drones.

Under FAA rules, drones are not allowed to hover above 400 feet and must be kept in sight by the operator while it is in the sky.

In response to anticipated concerns from the community, Sullivan said the drones will not be used for random surveillance.

“It’s task-oriented, it’s mission-specific,” he said.

National City joins other cities in the county where drones are used for public safety reasons.

For the county Sheriff’s Department, which was the first law enforcement agency in the county to use drones in 2016, the technology has come in handy to take video and photos at homicide scenes, search for missing people and aid deputies on the SWAT team.

Other cities where officers or firefighters have drones include Chula Vista, Escondido, Carlsbad and Oceanside.

National City’s off-the-shelf models — one DJI Mavic Pro and two DJI Phantom 4s — cost about $2,000 each. City funds and grants paid for the three drones.

“I see great things for this (program) in the future,” Sullivan said.

©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.