Emergency responders can damage drones without fear of civil liability: new California law

Ready, aim, fire!

Emergency responders received a green light Friday to take out drones interfering with emergency responses. Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Senate Bill 807, which protects emergency reponders such as police and firefighters from civil liability in the event they damage a drone that’s interfering with the response to a fire or medical emergency, or getting in the way of a search-and-rescue operation.

“Wildfires continue to ravage our state and we can’t have drones or anything else getting in the way of the first-class emergency response we get from all of our firefighters and public safety officers,” said state Sen. Ted Gaines, who introduced the bill. “These are life-and-death situations where a single delay can lead to tragedy. Let’s keep drones away to protect people and property.”

In July, California saw its first arrest of a drone operator alleged to have flown a drone over a large Sacrament0-area fire. “Drones pose a potential for crashes and collisions for firefighters flying aircraft to release water or spray fire retardant,” the Wall Street Journal said in an article about the arrest. “When drones are spotted above wildfires, aircraft operations are often suspended, which can cause the fires to spread more easily.”

By July, officials had spotted drones over more than a dozen U.S. wildfires, with the devices causing the grounding of aircraft – to avoid potential collisions – in six cases, according to the WSJ.

But blasting an unwelcome drone out of the sky has proved problematic in at least one instance. A Kentucky man cleared of criminal charges for shooting down his neighbor’s drone with a shotgun is facing a civil lawsuit by the neighbor.

A backgrounder to the California bill referred to five drones that delayed dispatch of water-drop helicopters to a Los Angeles fire by up to 20 minutes in August. “Impeding one tanker drop could be the difference between life and death of an individual or the loss of an entire neighborhood in flames,” Gaines said in written comments attached to the legislation. “It is essential that lifesaving services provided by emergency responders be free to continue despite someone’s misplaced desire to capture images for YouTube.”


Photo: The Loma fire is attacked from the air as hot spots erupt in Santa Clara County on Sept. 29, 2016. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)


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