According to Metro Government’s Division of Purchasing website, the bid went out two weeks ago and the deadline for submissions is next week, as they seek to purchase a drone “for wide area search, surveillance at emergency incidents, reconnaissance at large scale emergency incidents, size up and evaluation of hazardous areas.” The drone is to be equipped with a thermal imaging camera and would be able to transmit live feed video to a control center.
Capt. Salvador Melendez, the spokesman for the Louisville Fire Department, says the purchase was made possible by a 2013 grant from the Port Authority. The approximate cost of the drone is $45,000, and because the grant has a 25 percent fund matching clause, the department would provide $11,250 from their operating budget for its purchase.
“If acquisition is successful, the drone will strictly be used for reconnaissance assignments to secure the port area, which is the river corridor within our response area,” wrote Melendez in a statement sent to Insider Louisville. “Additionally, we intend to use it during haz-mat incidents, high angle or elevated rescue incidents, large fire incidents or any type of incident where personnel access is extremely limited and/or extremely dangerous; thus ensuring the safety of our personnel. It is NOT intended for any other use other that those mentioned above.”
It is the potential for “other use” of drones — particularly warrantless surveillance — that has drawn the concern of privacy advocates across the country, as a growing number of cities seek to have public safety departments use them. While their use by fire departments is less controversial than police departments — Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad was not hot on the idea this year — some jurisdictions have recently blocked the use of drones to fight fires over privacy concerns.
Asked if the city has a formal, written policy on how the drones may or may not be used, Melendez says this does not yet exist, but assures that a drone will only be put to use for fire emergencies, and by their department alone.
“At this point, we’re not that far into the process,” Melendez said, referring to a written policy. “This is for our use only, not Metro Government-wide usage. This is just one more piece of equipment that will be added to our inventory.”
Beyond what the drone is supposed to take footage of, there is also a question as to what will happen with the data it collects, and who has access to it.
“If there’s an incident that somehow happens to be in litigation, for one reason or another, no information will be able to be disposed because of whether that will affect any type of investigation or any kind of court proceeding,” said Melendez. “Other than that, if it’s an incident that gets resolved or has nothing else attached to it, it would be public information. So it’s not intended for concealed use, it’s just another tool to help us do our jobs in a safer way.”
The lack of formal legal guidelines in place both locally and statewide is a concern for Kate Miller, program director for the ACLU of Kentucky. Her organization supported legislation that was not passed in this year’s session of the state General Assembly that would have required the government to get a warrant before using drones to surveil a suspect and collect evidence, while allowing drones in search and rescue emergencies. Miller adds that the ACLU of Kentucky would be willing to work with the Louisville Fire Department to craft a policy that can protect privacy while also allowing their department to use an important public safety tool.
“The intended use of Louisville Fire Department’s drone appears to be in line with the appropriate use of this new technology, but we are concerned about the lack of a formal policy, especially when it comes to a technology that is capable of sweeping surveillance,” Miller said. “The Louisville Fire Department should put in place a policy with clear rules related to privacy, transparency and accountability, particularly as they pertain to data collection and retention. The ACLU has worked in states and cities across the country to advise government agencies through policy development. The ACLU of Kentucky would be happy to be a resource to the Louisville Fire Department.”
As for the practical benefits of a drone for the fire department, Melendez says this will give them a bird’s eye view of large fires and chemical spills, increasing not only their ability to respond quickly and effectively, but also to protect their own firefighters. As an example of what this would look like, here is drone footage of a large fire in Detroit last year:
In 2012, government officials had trouble accessing a large chemical train derailment in southwest Jefferson County, scrambling to find a private drone operator to help assess the situation. Melendez says that with their own drone readily available — providing high-quality realtime footage — “it potentially leads to the mitigation of an incident sooner rather than later.”