Menlo Park Fire district gets green light to buy a drone


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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1 person likes this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2014 at 11:46 am

This is a good idea--as long as it is used in a way that generates early tips for fires.

The data generated by the drone should be made available to the public, perhaps available through the web-site of the fire protection district. If the drone is taking videos, then it might require some new policy about what the public can, and can not see, when the public's drone is flying over their homes.

Other issues involve whether the drone will be used for increasing the information used on a per-incident basis, or if it is going to be used to fly over areas of woodland to look for trouble.

And then there are other issues, such as what to do when the drone comes upon something that is probably an illegal activity--such as a pot farm.

At anyrate--the fire protection district is moving ahead with technology, and they should be complimented for their vision and willingness to try new things.

1 person likes this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 24, 2014 at 8:40 am

Most of the privacy fears of drones are completely unfounded. The most common DJI drones have extremely wide angle lenses which can survey large areas but not resolve fine details.

Like this comment
Posted by Firemedic
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 25, 2014 at 9:58 am

Sounds like a nice toy, I mean tool

Like this comment
Posted by B Phillips
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 25, 2015 at 3:31 pm

Sitting on a bench overlooking Don Edwards Preserve. Quiet. Thousands of birds flying in beautiful patterns. Geese overhead. Ducks in water. Then.........the unmistakable whir of a drone. They should be banned from flying the thing over the baylands. This was reserved for the wildlife that is coming back, after decades of work. Totally irresponsible.Qqp

Like this comment
Posted by Jetman
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 25, 2015 at 10:35 pm

The privacy concerns surrounding drones are very real. Boeing has spent the last 5-6 years positioning itself to be the Google/Facebook of real-space (think about it).

In May 2006 Mark Klein is a former AT&T technician in San Francisco, leaked knowledge of his company's cooperation with the United States National Security Agency in installing network hardware to monitor, capture, and process American telecommunications.

Klein revealed that AT&T allowed the NSA to construct and equip a secret room in a San Francisco AT&T switching center, with data-mining equipment that forwarded internet traffic to the NSA. Klein said the equipment used to capture 100% of the internet traffic passing through the San Francisco hub was manufactured by an Israeli company, named Narus Inc. In 2010, Narus became a subsidiary of Boeing, located in Sunnyvale, CA.

"NSA Leak Vindicates AT&T Whistleblower (Mark Klein)"
Wired ~ June 27, 2013 Web Link

Boeing Acquires Narus Inc: Web Link

"Surveillance firm Insitu sells to Boeing for reported $400M"
Venture Beat ~ July 23, 2008 Web Link

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