Honolulu firefighters says drones can be dangerous distraction

Honolulu firefighters says drones can be dangerous distraction
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Drones are skyrocketing in popularity. And that's causing increasing concern for the Honolulu Fire Department, which says one of the unmanned devices could spell disaster for a firefighting helicopter.

Last week, as a Honolulu Fire Department helicopter pilot dropped water on a wildfire at Waialae Nui ridge, someone flew a drone in the same airspace. The person eventually grounded the drone.

HFD Capt. David Jenkins said HFD pilots need "to be aware of his total surroundings, above, below and around."

In the Waialae Nui fire, the pilot had to account for altitude, homes and other firefighters who were working in steep terrain.

"Having power lines and other things, that could pose a hazard," he said. "Having an aerial drone in close proximity just increases that risk a lot higher."

Mike Elliot, owner of Drone Services Hawaii, said drone pilots need to stay away from emergency scenes.

"They're actually endangering first responders, sometimes on the ground but in the air also," he said.

"If the helicopter was damaged or grounded, the immediate emergency is going to be impacted where we can't use that asset which could be essential."

But officials also say drones could be helpful in some instances. In March, Maui firefighters asked a drone pilot for help to pinpoint a fire in a remote area.

Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for FAA Pacific Division, said that temporary flight restrictions are often in place around wildfires to protect firefighting aircraft -- and that drone users need to pay attention to them.

"Any unmanned aircraft operator who violates a TFR and endangers the safety of manned aircraft could be assessed a civil penalty," he said. The fine can be as much as $27,500.

Temporary flight restrictions can be found online, at websites like skyvector.com.

TFRs can also apply to accident scenes, building fires, and mountain and ocean rescues.

Jenkins said the message about drone safety is especially important going into the summer season. Officials are expecting the period to have a higher-than-normal number of brush fires.

"We want to bring to the public's awareness to keep all emergency incidents clear," Jenkins said.

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