Fire, police drones caught between saving lives, guarding rights

Photo: Mason Trinca, Special To The Chronicle
Kevin White of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District retrieves the drone during a search-and-rescue training at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park.Battalion Chief Jeff Kleven stood onshore peering through the predawn darkness. He couldn’t see if anyone was inside a car partially submerged in the middle of Alameda Creek’s storm-swollen waters.

Instead of sending a rescue team into the debris-filled current, Kleven deployed the Fremont Fire Department’s newest life-saving tool — a drone equipped with a night-sight camera.

Kleven flew the drone about 40 yards, close enough to “look inside the window and see there was no one in there,” he said. “We came to find out the driver was able to get out, swim to shore and hike up the road. A passing car picked him up and took him to a store.”

That late-January rescue mission off Niles Canyon Road exemplifies a nationwide trend: Public safety agencies are increasingly using drones to detect hot spots in fires, catalog crime scenes and capture armed suspects. A report last month by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York cataloged 347 state and local police, sheriff, fire and emergency units that have acquired drones in the past eight years, nearly half of them last year alone. Many are the same types of drones that consumers fly.