Firefighters Could Destroy Nearby Drones Under Proposed State Law

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New state legislation attempts to tackle the growing problem of drone aircraft being flown into active firefighting and emergency zones. (Craig Miller/KQED)

It's a simple message from two state legislators to anyone who decides to fly a drone aircraft above a fire or other major emergency scene in California: Rescue crews should be able to destroy your remote-controlled device.

"We don't imagine someone shooting it out of the sky," said Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Glendale), one of the authors of the legislation. "Yet the existing law is insufficient to provide law enforcement that clear authority to take it down."

Gatto and state Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Rocklin) have teamed up on two pieces of drone-related legislation: The first bill would increase fines and make possible jail time for a drone that interferes with firefighting efforts.

The growing popularity of inexpensive remote-controlled planes equipped with video cameras has produced a number of thorny policy questions and has been a hot topic of discussion at the state Capitol for the past few years, most notably on concerns over privacy.

A firefighter monitors a back fire while battling the Rim Fire on August 22, 2013.
A firefighter monitors a back fire while battling the Rim Fire on Aug. 22, 2013. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

But drones being flown into fire zones and other emergency response scenes have presented a more immediate danger, with the latest incident coming last week when a remote device forced air tankers to back off for 25 minutes in efforts to control a fast-moving blaze.


The rise in both incidents and criticisms has led state and federal fire officials to form a task force in search of ways to deal with the problem.

"We continue to see more and more incidents," said Daniel Berlant, public information officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "We're going to be working to determine the specific impact that these hobby drones have already had, the consequences that they had on those fires and then how we can move forward to continue to enforce the laws that currently exist."

But it's the lack of existing laws, say the two state legislators, that means swift action is needed in Sacramento.

Senate Bill 168 would indemnify -- that is, legally cover -- any emergency personnel who would take action against someone's privately owned drone. The bill's authors believe that "jamming" technology may become available to simply keep the aircraft away. But the bill, if approved and signed into law, would also cover the destruction of a drone in order to allow crews to do their job.

"People can replace drones but we can't replace a life," said Gaines in an emailed statement. "When our rescuers are risking their own lives to protect us, I want them thinking about safety, not liability."

KQED News editor Ted Goldberg contributed to this report.