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Phoenix Fire Department Pioneers City Drone Program

After several years of pushing, the Phoenix Fire Department has officially launched its unmanned aircraft systems program, laying the policy and best practices groundwork for other city departments to follow suit.

Phoenix Fire Department Capt. Kenny Overton training with the department's new drone.
Phoenix Fire Department Capt. Kenny Overton training with the department's new drone.
Image courtesy of the Phoenix Fire Department (screenshot via Instagram)
The Phoenix Fire Department recently launched a drone program to improve the information firefighters can gather at dynamic and dangerous emergency scenes.

Several years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration set out to relax regulations, enabling local governments increased access to drones. The potential uses for this technology vary greatly, from deliveries to wildlife protection. Importantly, they can be a tool to help first responders save lives.

For the city of Phoenix, the decision to pursue drone usage originated years ago, according to Capt. Brian Geranen, program coordinator of the Phoenix Fire Department UAS Program.

While there were some hurdles that slowed down the adoption of this technology, the department was selected to lead the city program in 2020, creating a structure that would ultimately allow the city to scale the program across other departments.

Geranen said that the department was approved by the City Council in February 2022 to lead this program, providing that they participated in about 15 public meetings. After doing so, in May 2022, the department was given approval to purchase the drones, officially kicking off the initiative June 11.

Since the launch, the team has conducted flights and responded to incidents, like brush fires and mountain rescues, taking an iterative approach and making adjustments as the program matures.

“One of the biggest things that we try to provide is answering unknowns,” Geranen stated, underlining the importance of aerial, 360-degree visuals of an incident.

The images that the drone captures will be streamed to a monitor for incident commanders to make informed decisions in emergency scenarios. However, the drones are not recording any video or storing images at this time.

While there has been skepticism from some in the community, the overall feedback has been about 95 percent positive, Geranen said, crediting the team’s transparency efforts and delivery strategy.

For example, the fire department gave a presentation during the public meetings to show the public exactly what would and would not be involved. In addition, the City Manager’s Office documented the questions received during these meetings from the public to create a Frequently Asked Questions resource.

Another thing that Geranen said has come out of those meetings was the creation of the Technical, Safety and Privacy subcommittee and the UAS Executive Committee. Both groups will be made up of city employees, and the latter of which will include two members of the public as well.

“We’re going to use that data and continuously revisit that with the operational needs of the fire department and the community to see how we can best serve the community,” he said.

As Geranen explained, the Phoenix Fire Department has laid the foundation for the structure of creating a drone program as it was the first department in the city to have a program approved. While the fire department was the first to have a drone program, the police department recently went through the same process to establish its own. Other departments, like the parks department or the water department, could soon follow with their own initiatives.

All departments would report to the same governing board.

“Our goal is just to improve the service that the fire department delivers and help the customers and the community and our firefighters,” he said. “Hopefully we can keep moving forward and keep improving.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.