Drone interference with first responders could lead to hefty fines

RACINE — The Federal Aviation Administration is asking operators of unmanned aircraft or drones to consider the consequences when flying could interfere with firefighter, law enforcement or medical flight operations.

Drone operators are now more likely than ever to face serious civil penalties for interfering with first responders, even for first-time offenses, according to a press release from the FAA.

Those who might encounter possible drone violations have been instructed to forward all cases involving interference with first responders to the FAA Chief Counsel’s office.

So far, there’s only been one local violation of note involving a drone that Dave Mann, executive director of Batten International Airport is aware of. It did not involve first responder operations. In 2015, a small drone crashed on a Batten airport taxiway after its “home” button was improperly programmed. The FAA prohibits the flying of drones within five miles of an airport. The drone’s operator was not cited for the incident.

According to Racine Fire Chief Steve Hansen and Sgt. Adam Malacara, public information officer for the Racine Police Department, neither local police or fire have encountered drone interference with the work.

“We’ve got some pretty responsible drone operators around here,” Mann said.

But now that the FAA is moving from education to enforcement, at least in some cases, Mann wants to ensure that local drone operators follow the rules.

“I don’t want to see anybody get fined,” Mann said.

Two years ago, Congress authorized the FAA to impose a civil fine of up to $20,000 for anyone who, while flying a drone, deliberately or recklessly interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement or emergency response efforts.

“Under FAA guidance, inspectors generally use non-enforcement methods, including education, for correcting unintentional violations that arise from factors such as flawed systems, simple mistakes, or lack of understanding,” according to the FAA release. “However, given the potential for direct and immediate interference with potentially life-saving operations where minutes matter, offenders will immediately be considered for enforcement actions. Enforcement actions can include revocation or suspension of a pilot certificate, and up to a $20,000 civil penalty per violation.”

The FAA emphasized the importance of deterring drone interference with the work of first responders.

“Firefighting aircraft trying to contain a wildfire have to suspend flights when a drone enters the area to avoid a possible mid-air collision,” according to the FAA release. “A drone flying over a crime scene or accident site can hamper police or medical aircraft operations. Ultimately, interference by a drone can cost lives.”

Drone operators can find all the rules and regulations for flying their unmanned aircraft at FAA.gov.

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