Against a rash of wildfires that burned across Southern California this week, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) celebrated the first official flight of its field surveillance drones.
On Friday, LAFD posted a video on Instragram of a drone taking flight to monitor the devastation of the Skirball fire, a 475-acre blaze near the Los Angeles neighborhood of Bel-Air. Firefighters said that the flight, which lasted about 30 minutes, helped crews conduct damage assessments and identify areas where the fire might still be at risk of spreading.
“There were two flights. One of them was just for a visual image from the sky to get an idea of the amount of property damage from the air,” LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas told local radio station KPCC. “The second purpose was to locate hot spots, where the fire is still smoldering. Once we have that information, we can dispatch our firefighters to those exact locations.”
On social media, the flights elicited praise from dozens of local residents and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Some thanked firefighters for their service while others asked why the department hadn’t used them years ago.
LAFD has in fact been investigating drones for months. In June, the LAFD Board of Fire Commissioners submitted research and a request to the city council to operate drones during incidents. And while the council approved that request, the department was still required to wait for permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, which it received on Dec. 6.
To develop its program, LAFD says it will work with fire departments in Austin, Texas, and the Sheriff’s Department in Ventura County, California, where drone programs are already active.
In addition to legal holdups, LAFD and the city had to calm fears by residents and public interest groups like the American Civil Liberties Union that the drones and their data would not be used for public surveillance.
Now the department has eight drones, valued at about $50,000 combined, that can be dispatched for reconnaissance during incidents. Terrazas said the expense is minimal compared to alternatives like helicopters equipped with infrared sensors.