Marin, Calif., Weighs Fire Department Drone Program

Residents are largely supportive of the program for emergency response but cautioned against using it for police enforcement. Fire Chief Chris Tubbs said gaining trust is the first step in getting the program approved.

by Lorenzo Morotti, The Marin Independent Journal / February 18, 2020
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(TNS) — Transparency and privacy are top concerns surrounding a proposed new fire drone program in Southern Marin.

The proposed fire department program, in the works in the Southern Marin Fire Protection District for three years, got its first airing before the Sausalito City Council last week.

Fire Chief Chris Tubbs said gaining residents’ trust is the first step in getting the program approved. The district will work with the city through its newsletter to notify residents about upcoming community meetings planned to better shape rules for when and where the drone would be used.

“We want to be wholly transparent with policy and procedures,” Tubbs said. “The first part involves getting community feedback and then bringing it back to the council for another round of feedback.

“What is the oversight to that going to look like is another part of the discussion with the community,” he said. “How do we ensure those policies and procedures we’ve adopted are being followed?”

Councilman Joe Burns said that this kind of technology is something that would greatly enhance emergency response.

“Think helicopter times 100 in efficiency and time,” he said. “The exponential gain is unbelievable. So, I’m excited to have this conversation. Having technology that can get on the backside of an active shooter or know where something is happening in a fire or police situation, it will be beneficial for our community.”

Residents at the meeting Tuesday were supportive of the program for emergency response but cautioned against using it for police enforcement.

Sausalito resident Frank Shinneman said the key issue in drones is always privacy and surveillance. He said differentiating its use for emergency operations and police investigations is critical in getting this program approved.

“One is investigative, it has a public safety aspect but only in regard to a crime scene verses an emergency response,” Shinneman said. “A very key difference is the need and justifications for recording and what can be done with those recordings.”

Councilwoman Joan Cox and Councilman Tom Reilly both agreed that this will be key to whether the community will embrace this kind of drone program.

“One thing this technology gives us is privacy concerns dealing with camera, license plate recognition and home security cameras,” Reilly said. “I have support for tech, but we need to get ahead of what kind of privacy protections will be put in place for our residents as these technologies become more prevalent.”

Cox said the license plate reading system is a good example of how the fire district could create policies and procedures for the program. She said the police are only notified when a license plate with an outstanding warrant enters the city’s jurisdiction, otherwise the information is not used.

“There are manners in which we can tailor our privacy protections appropriately to the utility of the technology,” she said. “I think it will be important to do that and welcome the feedback from folks on how we can best do that, but I’m confident there is a way to balance those interests.”

Susan Cleveland-Knowles said that there was a similar program she helped implement while working with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. She said a camera system tracked when a vehicle illegally parked in a bus zone and the owner would then be issued a citation in the mail.

Cleveland-Knowles said even if there is an accident caught on tape the footage cannot be used.

“That’s one example of defining objectives up front for what you want to do with the video surveillance from the drones and tailoring privacy policies on the other end to eliminate use of the footage for other purposes,” she said.

©2020 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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