07.23.15

Rep. Schiff to FAA – Consider Requiring “Geo-Fencing” in Civilian Drones to Prevent Interference in Firefighting Activities

Washington, DC – Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, began circulating a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta among his California colleagues urging the agency to consider measures to prevent commercial and hobbyist drones from interfering in firefighting operations.  Recently, as the “North Fire” threatened cars on the 10 Freeway, firefighting planes had to be rerouted because of five drones flying in the area. This is not the first instance, as it was reported that this was the fourth time in just the past few weeks that drones had interfered with efforts to fight a wildfire in Southern California. 

Schiff is recommending that as part of the finalization of regulations to regulate the operation of small commercial drones, the FAA should consider requiring technological measures that would prevent the operation of drones in a manner that interferes with first responders. 

In the letter, Schiff writes: “As commercial drones become more widespread, the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry services are likely to experience an increase in civilian operated drones interference with emergency first responders. We understand the FAA is in the process of finalizing rules to regulate the operation of small commercial drones, and we urge you to use this process to incorporate measures directed at preventing the operation of drones in a manner that interferes with first responders. Among the steps that we believe should be considered is the possibility of requiring technological measures, such as “geo-fencing,” in commercially available drones that prevent them from being flown within a geographic area where they are likely to interfere with firefighting activities. The FAA should also consider a campaign to ensure that civilian drone operators understand the dangers of operating drone in restricted airspace, and the potential harm that this irresponsible behavior could cause.”

The full letter, which is circulating now to other Members of Congress, is below:

Dear Administrator Huerta:

We write to express our strong concerns regarding the increased reports of civilian drones interfering with wildfire suppression activities. We urge the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to consider all the tools at its disposal to prohibit this dangerous and irresponsible use of civilian drones, which have already endangered the lives of civilians and firefighters.

As you may be aware, the U.S. Forest Service, as well as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, have had to delay or abort a number of wildfire suppression flights due to commercial drones. This happened most recently during “North Fire” near Cajon Pass when firefighting operations had to be halted shortly before the wildfire jumped Interstate 10 because of a recreational drone, causing motorists to abandon their cars and flee for their lives.

First responders must have the ability to address wildfire activities quickly and be uninhibited by unforeseen circumstances, such as a civilian flying their commercial drone in the vicinity. Not only do these drones put first responder pilots’ lives at risk, they also prevent these firefighters from helping to contain wildfires and put the lives of ordinary citizens at risk. For example, a June 25th Los Angeles Times article reported that a DC-10 Air Tanker and two smaller planes were forced to divert and drop their fire retardant cargo elsewhere due to a commercial drone flying in the area. Not only did this cost taxpayers between $10,000 and $15,000, it shut down further missions and allowed the wildfire to spread. In the early stages of a wildfire, time is of the essence and even an hour of delay can be the difference between containment or an uncontrollable burn that destroys thousands of acres and threatens lives and property.

As commercial drones become more widespread, the U.S. Forest Service and state forestry services are likely to experience an increase in civilian operated drones interference with emergency first responders. We understand the FAA is in the process of finalizing rules to regulate the operation of small commercial drones, and we urge you to use this process to incorporate measures directed at preventing the operation of drones in a manner that interferes with first responders. Among the steps that we believe should be considered is the possibility of requiring technological measures, such as “geo-fencing,” in commercially available drones that prevent them from being flown within a geographic area where they are likely to interfere with firefighting activities. The FAA should also consider a campaign to ensure that civilian drone operators understand the dangers of operating drone in restricted airspace, and the potential harm that this irresponsible behavior could cause.

With California in the middle of a multi-year drought, we can expect to see more wildfires that threaten the lives and homes of many families. We urge the FAA to ensure that our first responders battling these fires are not inhibited in any way from carrying out their duties. Thank you, and we look forward to working with you on this critical issue.

Sincerely,

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