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Menlo Park fire district, Coast Guard adopt safety plan for drones and aircraft

Agreement spells out flight height to avoid conflicts

A new plan for Menlo Park fire district firefighters' search and rescue drones and U.S. Coast Guard helicopters to share the skies over the San Francisco Bay near the abandoned Dumbarton Railroad Trestle could make the difference between a "live rescue and a tragic recovery," Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman said.

Drones are frequently used in emergencies and natural disasters but conflicts emerged between public and private drone operators and other emergency aircraft, such as those used in wildland firefighting, during the wildfire seasons of 2017 and 2018.

In some cases, air tankers and helicopters were unable to drop water or fire retardant due to the threat of collision with smaller, unmanned systems in the area.

Over the Bay, however, the new agreement spells out specific altitudes of operation for drones and aircraft to improve operator safety.

"We've established that our search and rescue drones working in conjunction with our water rescue craft, or rescue boats, don't need to fly above 150 feet," Schapelhouman said in a news release Monday.

"This optimal drone flight height gives us the best birds eye screen view, pictures, video and most importantly strategic situational awareness capabilities that can enhance and better coordinate joint aviation operations where seconds count and minutes matter," Schapelhouman said.

Questions about anti-collision lighting and other safety protocols are also addressed.

"Drones are a tremendous asset for searching the confined areas around bridges and power lines and, when combined with ... helicopters, provide a more complete and effective maritime rescue package for the Bay Area public," U.S. Coast Guard Commander Brian Potter said.

During a period of annexation in the post-World War II era, Menlo Park acquired a significant area of marshland, mud and tidal water where the Menlo Park Fire Protection District is now responsible for emergency response.

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