When it is time to try something new, often it is wise to seek out advice and find someone who has already mastered the task or project. In law enforcement, agencies that consider starting a Drone as First Responder (DFR) program often do just that. Many go to the originator of DFR operations, the Chula Vista Police Department.
Although the southern California department started talking about a drone program in 2015, things really got underway in 2017 when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was tasked by President Donald Trump to begin planning how to incorporate drones into American airspace.
Chula Vista joined the FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP). Through that, Chula Vista partnered with the City of San Diego and ended up being the only law enforcement agency involved in the IPP. According to the FAA, “CVPD conducted 3,900 flights that assisted in 505 arrests and saved 986 patrol resources and obtained the first waiver for close proximity, low altitude, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations.”
“That’s when DFR, or drone as first responder, was born. We coined that term here in Chula Vista. That started here and in southern California, and we're very proud of our humble beginnings on that,” says Sgt. Dustin Bruzee, UAS/DFR supervisor at the Chula Vista Police Department.
The premise of a DFR program is a drone, based on a rooftop, can deploy and respond to a call for service more quickly than officers on the ground. That drone overhead, equipped with a camera system, then provides an aerial observation platform to help better inform responding officers, often directs their focus once they arrive, and records video that may be useful for investigations or prosecutions.
“We get there pretty quickly. We're usually the first one there, which is good, because then that officer that's about to get to that call now has a video feed, or they have a drone pilot talking in their ear telling them exactly what to expect,” explains Bruzee.
Chula Vista has four DFR drones stationed on rooftops and collectively those provide nearly citywide coverage. One civilian pilot in command is stationed at each rooftop and the drone is piloted by a teleoperator, a police officer inside an office. Both the civilian pilots in command and the teleoperators are FAA Part 107 licensed pilots. Although that may seem like a duplication of pilots, the teleoperators are the ones who launch, fly, and control the DFR drones. At some agencies, like the Brookhaven Police Department (GA), DFR programs were started without civilian pilots. They began DFR operations using sworn offices both as pilots in command and as teleoperators.
It is common for a department to have multiple officers qualified as Part 107 pilots, even some who are not actively assigned to the DFR program, since agencies often use additional drones in other roles as well. In Chula Vista, the desire to learn about drones has made its way up through the ranks through the command staff and even the chief holds a Part 107 license.
“I have 25 pilots in the field in a variety of assignments that are not full time, and I can always just pull them in and put them at another station and we can fly another drone with them,” says Bruzee.
Although he has developed a passion for drones and DFR, he says he never saw this technology coming 22 years ago when he first became an officer. But, he points out he is glad the technology is now available.
Since Chula Vista led the way in DFR operations, other agencies commonly follow their example and many reach out to the department. Bruzee is adept at sharing information and helping point others in the right direction. He has taken time to share 10 tips for agencies considering a DFR program.
His tips, or suggestions, are:
1. Concept of Operations
Creating a concept of operations is the basic starting point for any program. Identify what you want to accomplish with a DFR program. How often are you planning to be operational? Where do you launch from? Once you’ve answered those questions, ask how your agency is going to fund the program.
2. Identify & Engage Stakeholders
Who has the most to gain or lose in your community? Who is likely to support your program? And who is likely to oppose you program? When you have identified those groups, you must engage them for input. If you do not, they will certainly wane in support or be far more vocal when opposing your efforts.
3. COA Application
The COA application process can be a daunting one. It is unfamiliar territory for most supervisors or managers of a UAS program. Engage with someone who can help. Identify a resource who has “been there and done that” and recreate the application for your jurisdiction. Being unique and creative isn’t the play here. Use what other agencies have successfully used to start their programs.
4. Create Policy and Procedure
Using what you’ve gained from engaging your stakeholders, identify another agency who has a strong but flexible policy in place and combine the two. This needs to be a good mix of community input along with the industry standards. No need to reinvent the wheel here.
5. Identify Partners
You may need help with equipment, launch locations, staffing, software, and guidance. There will be many vendors and contractors very willing to take your money, but few will partner with you and stand by you when you’re building a program. Identify those partners and gain their cooperation and buy in for your program.
You must be willing to pull back the curtain, showing your program from the inside out, for your community. We have a track record, as law enforcement agencies, of being secretive and protective of our information. This cannot be the case in starting a DFR program. People will be very suspicious of your use of this type of technology. You must show them how, when, and why you are using drones. Additionally, show them their privacy is the number one priority to you and your program.
7. Engage and Educate the Community
Misinformation is the number one cause for strife between a police agency and the community it serves. If you can engage and educate your community, you can likely avoid most instances of misinformation. This must be done regularly and should be done in the community, not from the comfort of your station or headquarters.
8. Keep Promises Made
You will find you will make many compromises with community members as you start your program. You will hear their concerns about privacy and surveillance, causing agreements to be made to calm those concerns. When you make those promises, you must honor them at all costs. It will only take one perceived lie or misuse to create mistrust and a loss of community support.
9. Share Successes
As your program gets going, you will make your community safer. Don’t be shy about telling the story. You will have examples of lives saved, situations de-escalated, and resources preserved as a result of your efforts. Use the traditional media, social media, and community engagement to tell those stories. This will result in better relationships and deepened trust.
10. Crawl, Walk, Run
Don’t get overwhelmed with what another agency is doing. Start small and grow your program at a pace you can keep up with. Do not try to start a city-wide program, with several launch sites, and tens of thousands of dollars in new equipment at the beginning. I recommend one small step at a time, to avoid the pitfalls of trying to do too much, too soon.