(TNS) -- MENLO PARK, Calif. -- The Menlo Park Fire Protection District plans to deploy a full fleet of drones within three years to do everything from instantly checking out collisions on the Dumbarton Bridge to quickly assessing whether a chemical spill is hazardous enough to warrant evacuation.
The fire district last week issued a report, called "Rise of the Machines," on its burgeoning drone program. It already has a DJI Phantom drone for training a new drone team of six firefighters at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and plans to buy another drone from DJI with better capabilities. DJI is a Chinese drone maker that has been sharing its devices with the district the past two years.
In all, fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said he expects the district to be using three "large frame" drones within three years, as well as disposable handheld drones at less than $300 a pop as needed.
He also wants to build an aerial port at Fire Station 77 in Belle Haven to house a roughly 80-pound drone that essentially would serve as the first responder to an emergency. For that, however, the district needs additional approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration.
"This is an asset that gives us incredible new capabilities," Schapelhouman said. "Essentially, I gain an air force, if you will, at a price point and an operation level with minimal effort that I never had before."
Recent advances give handheld drones the capability to do such tasks as shine a light while surveying a burned-out building or analyze the air above a potential hazardous spill.
"Any time we have any kind of hazmat issue, even at the most minimal level, it's a two- to three-hour call ... (and) the vast majority of time, it's somebody who dumped paint or oil," Schapelhouman said. A small drone could reduce such a call to a matter of minutes.
Two firefighters, Chris Dennebaum and Kevin White, head up the drone team. Dennebaum said he was already using his own DJI Phantom as a hobbyist when the district began exploring drones in 2014.
"When we started talking about this, it was natural I would be a part," Dennebaum said.
The FAA in May gave the district permission to fly drones up to 399 feet. And since the district fields a task force through FEMA's Urban Search & Rescue program, that means it potentially could fly them anywhere in the country.
At SLAC, the drone team is working in tandem with the district's annual wildfire training exercises. The current drone offers a 360-degree perspective from the air, but the new drone will also feature thermal-imaging capabilities, longer flight times, a more robust frame to allow it to operate in winds topping 30 mph, and zooming capability.
Schapelhouman said he plans to share the drones with law enforcement agencies during emergency responses, to do such things as inspect a roof where a suspect could have tossed evidence or to look through windows where a suspect might be hiding.
He said he would not lend out the devices or allow police to use them for surveillance.
The ACLU said the district's plan to share drones with law enforcement raises serious concerns.
"Drones are an extremely powerful and invasive technology that are easy tools for discrimination," Nicole A. Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for ACLU of California, wrote in an email to The Daily News. "No agency should be buying drones ... without robust community input and thorough oversight to make sure the right questions are being asked and answered and civil rights are properly safeguarded."
Schapelhouman said he has involved the community in the drone program and authorized all purchases through the district's board of directors.
"I think it's been an important, transparent public process vehicle that has, I think, helped us along the way," he said. "I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of positive feedback, though not all of it (positive)."
He added that no drone footage would be retained, other than to possibly illustrate the extent of traffic jams during responses. He also said that if the district gets FAA approval to operate the 80-pound drone remotely -- without an operator always in the line of sight, as is the current rule -- it would fly over the rail line and major roads but not residences.
©2016 the Palo Alto Daily News (Menlo Park, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.