By Shaun Boyd
DENVER (CBS4)– Some state lawmakers are pushing to make flying a drone above a wildfire or other emergency a crime.
Drones are responsible for grounding air tankers on three dozen wildfires nationwide last year alone. In Colorado, firefighters in La Plata County lost all aerial support on the Lightner Fire when amateur drone operators wanted to get some pictures.
“Those ground crews are relying on that retardant drop,” says Chris Swathwood, Vice Chair of the Colorado Aviation Business Association.
A commercial drone operator, he works with several fire departments in Colorado. He says while drones can be an asset to emergency crews, they are increasingly becoming a liability.
“Drones are interfering with lifesaving and firefighting efforts,” said Swathwood.
They pose a risk of crashes not only for airtankers but air ambulances.
“The air operations plan goes out the window once a drone shows up,” says UCHealth EMS Chief Braden Applegate.
He says drones can delay Flight for Life from reaching patients and responding to emergencies.
“At the stadium football games we cover we routinely have rogue drones flying in the area and that impacts our ability to mitigate an emergency,” said Applegate.
Rep. Joanne Ginal, a Democrat representing Fort Collins, says it’s especially dangerous as the number of amateur drone operators grows.
“It’s a hobby – I get that – it’s fun. But there’s a very serious side to this,” said Ginal.
Ginal and Rep. Polly Lawrence, a Republican representing Douglas County, are sponsoring a bill that would make obstructing emergency operations with a drone a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year behind bars and $1,000 fine.
“I think sometimes you actually have to put some teeth into those warnings,” says Lawrence, “You’re always going to have a few people who want to push that envelope.”
Ginal says it’s a matter of life and death, “It is preventing people from getting help that they need from our first responders.”
The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control says there were nearly 5,400 wildfires in Colorado last year.
The White House is considering rules that would allow the FBI and Homeland Security to take over or even destroy drones in protected airspace.
But Swathworth says that can be risky, “We’re operating aircraft that have lipo batteries and if you puncture that battery you get a chemical fire and incident number two having to be managed.”
The bill passed its first committee. It still needs to pass the full House before heading to the Senate.
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