Menlo Park Fire district gets green light to buy a drone

by Dave Boyce / Almanac

A drone like this one, the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quad-Copter, is under consideration as an aerial assistant for firefighters of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District when fighting a significant fire or conducting a difficult rescue. The drone’s arms are about 4 inches long. (Photo courtesy of DJI Innovations.)

A hand-held aerial drone, probably one with four helicopter blades, will likely take up residence soon in the Menlo Park Fire Protection District to help survey the scene of a fire from above.

With no comment from the public at a fire district board meeting on Oct. 21, a consensus of board members gave the green light to the district administration to proceed with a purchase and a drone-use policy.

Division Chief Frank Fraone told the board he would be meeting soon with drone manufacturers and with the Federal Aviation Administration about becoming licensed.

The device under consideration would be equipped with a camera and hover above a fire and send real-time video to firefighters’ smart phones and tablet computers.

Ahead of the meeting, Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman solicited email from the public about their concerns, if any. The Menlo Park district serves Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and nearby unincorporated areas. The overall response was positive, Chief Schapelhouman told the board.

Board member Virginia Chang-Kiraly said the email she received on the topic was mostly positive. Buying one is “an opportunity to show how it can be used in the best way and the correct way,” she said. “We can be an example.”

Board member Peter Carpenter said the policy should make use of the drone a matter of public record, including when it was used and what it was used for.

Most of the videos would be available to the public via YouTube, in the way photos of fires are available on the fire district’s website, Chief Schapelhouman told the Almanac.

“The responsibility is on us to do this the right way,” he told the board. “(A drone) is something that’s viable, it’s useful, it lasts a long time. I’m for it as long as we can make our policy very clear as to how it’s being used,” he added. “There’s not some sinister agenda that some people think we have.”

It’s unlikely that the district would lend the drone to any other agency, though another firefighting agency might be an exception if it remained in the possession of a Menlo Park district firefighter trained to operate it, Chief Schapelhouman told the Almanac.

“The biggest issue seems to surround law enforcement using (the drone) for surveillance,” he said. “We’re just not going to (let it be used for) that except under extreme circumstances. … People don’t want people spying on them and that’s not what we do.”

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