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Fire, Police Drones Caught Between Public Safety and Privacy Concerns

Privacy concerns have helped ground drone plans in San Jose and Berkeley.

(TNS) -- Battalion Chief Jeff Kleven stood onshore peering through the predawn darkness. He couldn’t see if anyone was inside a car partially submerged in the middle of Alameda Creek, Calif.’s storm-swollen waters.

Instead of sending a rescue team into the debris-filled current, Kleven deployed the Fremont Fire Department’s newest life-saving tool — a drone equipped with a night-sight camera.

Kleven flew the drone about 40 yards, close enough to “look inside the window and see there was no one in there,” he said. “We came to find out the driver was able to get out, swim to shore and hike up the road. A passing car picked him up and took him to a store.”

That late-January rescue mission off Niles Canyon Road exemplifies a nationwide trend: Public safety agencies are increasingly using drones to detect hot spots in fires, catalog crime scenes and capture armed suspects. A report last month by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York cataloged 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency units that have acquired drones in the past eight years, nearly half of them last year alone. Many are the same types of drones that consumers fly.

Some are concerned about the implications of drone use. The Bay Area, a hotbed of innovation, often rushes to deploy such new technologies. But its residents are also on guard against digital incursions into their rights.

Locally, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and the Fremont Fire Department are already flying regular missions. The Moraga-Orinda Fire District is close to launching its drone program.

Last week, San Francisco approved a new policy that will eventually allow the Fire Department and four other city agencies to use drones — two years after a citywide moratorium was enacted.

Privacy concerns have helped ground drone plans in San Jose and Berkeley.

“It needs to be regulated so it doesn’t become a way to spy on the general public and innocent civilians who are not doing anything wrong,” said Berkeley City Councilman Kriss Worthington.

Some critics also worry the drones could crash into buildings or airplanes. But fire and law enforcement agencies say the technology can save time, money and lives.

“This technology is not just awesome, it’s a game changer,” said Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman, whose department is hosting a June 2 drone symposium for fire departments from throughout California.

Alameda County has 10 drones that have flown during several high-profile incidents, such as December’s deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland. Tom Madigan, the Sheriff’s Office commander and drone unit’s chief, said the drone involved in that fire carried a thermal-imaging camera to search for hot spots — areas where the fire is most active or embers could reignite — and victims.

In January, Fremont and Menlo Park drones helped search for a woman whose car crashed into Alameda Creek on Jan. 21 and a man whose kayak capsized in the bay.

The drones did not immediately locate either victim, but they saved time by quickly covering big swaths of search area. And three weeks later, the drones did help locate and identify the kayaker’s body, after someone fishing off a pier reported what looked like a body floating in the bay.

The Fremont Fire Department has four drones, which can stream live images to an iPad mounted to the drone’s remote control and to a monitor inside Kleven’s battalion chief’s vehicle. They’ve been used on about 15 missions since the department launched its program Jan. 1, including searching for a missing Alzheimer’s patient, directing fire crews to the source of a smoky car-parts lot fire and surveying the extent of a hazardous gas plume outside a store.

“This tool, as far as technology is concerned, is probably going to be the biggest advancement the fire service has seen for a long while,” Kleven said.

The drones helped police involved in an April 9 shootout with a man on Decoto Road. When the man fled into a dark corner behind a shopping center, a California Highway Patrol helicopter couldn’t get close enough to determine what he was doing or if he still had a gun.

Kleven flew the drone in for a closer look, which revealed the man lying with a gun by his side. An autopsy later revealed that he had shot himself.

DJI, a Chinese company, makes the most popular consumer drones, also called unmanned aerial vehicles, with models ranging from $500 to about $2,000. That compares with one $8,000 commercial-grade drone that San Jose police bought in 2013.

“You can accomplish most of what you need with hobbyist-grade” unmanned aerial vehicles, Madigan said. “The technology is moving so fast that there’s no need anymore to spend a significant amount of money.”

DJI, which has a software development office in Palo Alto, recently unveiled a new model built to withstand colder temperatures and stronger winds, “based on feedback we’ve received from rescue services around the world,” said Adam Lisberg, the company’s North America spokesman.

Schapelhouman of Menlo Park envisions a future generation of drones that will let fire services launch them automatically. That would, for example, allow an autonomous drone to fly itself over a burning building or a freeway crash as soon as the first alarm comes in, he said.

The public is more open to firefighters, rather than police, using drones, Schapelhouman noted. In 2014, his department began working on a drone policy and held public hearings before launching its fleet. The San Jose Police Department acknowledges that it should have proposed a similar public policy before buying its drone in 2013.

The San Jose City Council authorized the purchase, made with federal funds, without any debate, said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “It was an intern of ours months later who saw this in the (council) minutes. Then the public heard about it, and there was very, very significant concern.”

That forced the city to ground the drone until it could draft a policy and meet with neighborhood organizations. Not consulting the public first was “a blind spot,” said San Jose police Capt. Jason Dwyer. One major concern police heard, he said, was about “mission creep”: “‘You’re telling us that’s the mission today, but tomorrow, how will we know you’re not going to use it for surveillance purposes?’ It seems innocent enough until someone sees it fly over their backyard.”

The department has agreed to “categorically not use it for surveillance,” and to not record or store images, he said. The drone is to be used only “any time there’s a danger to human life,” he said.

Though the policy is now in place, the drone remains grounded because staffing cutbacks prevented the department from getting an officer trained and certified by the FAA to fly a drone.

In Berkeley, a two-year moratorium banning police use of drones, but allowing the Fire Department to employ them in the event of a disaster, recently ended without the City Council’s adopting an official drone use policy.

Councilman Worthington supported the moratorium but ultimately is open to police using drones. Last month’s violent clash between supporters and opponents of President Trump would have been a perfect time for a drone to help “identify who was being the bad actors,” he said.

Still, “government bureaucracies around the world, including in our own wonderful country, have spied on us too much,” he said. “A healthy suspicion of government overreach in surveillance is a prudent public policy.”

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.