Drone debate reignites after potential threat to HFD crews

Air Force wants to test more weapons in Kauai waters
Updated: Feb. 6, 2017 at 7:42 PM HST
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The debate over drones reignited Monday, days after firefighters raised concerns about drones interfering with crews battling a fast-moving wildfire in East Oahu.

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State lawmakers are considering new restrictions for drones that they say are aimed at helping keep the skies safe.

At least one drone operator shot footage of the flames near Koko Crater on Saturday. Firefighters also warned another operator who was about to launch an unmanned aerial vehicle.

"Just the thought that there may be other drones out there as well, we wanted to make sure that the public knew that it was extremely hazardous to our operation to have drones in the air while our helicopter was there," said Honolulu Fire Department Capt. David Jenkins.

Last May, someone flew a drone over another East Oahu blaze while HFD's helicopter was doing water drops.

"We do agree that that is a problem and we think the police already have the authority to actually intervene on that behalf, interfering with first responders or state activities in that manner," said Mike Elliott, co-owner of Drone Services Hawaii.

Other agencies have faced similar problems with drone activities. During the Pahoa lava threat, civilian drones interfered with emergency management assessments of the flow.

"In one case, one of the fire department helicopters kind of had to force it down and contact the owner to stop it because he wasn't participating in the coordination effort," said Vern Miyagi, administrator for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Under House Bill 314, drones would not be allowed within 500 feet of first responders or emergency response vehicles at a scene.

They would also be prohibited from flying over schools, hospitals and police stations without permission. The measure also clarifies that, under certain circumstances, drone use could constitute first- or second-degree invasion of privacy.

Critics contend the existing law already covers many of the issues. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, operating a drone could pose a hazard to firefighting aircraft, violating federal aviation regulations. Careless or reckless operations are also prohibited.

"The FAA has the authority to issue rules and regulations for airspace. Drones are aircraft. They fly in airspace. It's the FAA's purview to manage that, not the state of Hawaii," said Elliott.

A spokesperson for the Honolulu Police Department said officers have not issued any citations for drone-related offenses. The department is still seeking clarification on what the law allows regarding the new technology.

After listening to testimony on HB314, the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce decided to defer the measure until Feb. 22 and create a permanent working group of stakeholders to review potential legislation.

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