Rules for UAS
Under section 9A it says Do not interfere with emergency response or law enforcement activities.

Can this be more specific? Does that mean no is to operate a Drone while there is an active Emergency service scene? Does that mean emergency services and their counter parts have priority consideration while you as your own operator can still operate your drone but emergency services can tell you to stop operating?
3 Replies
Hi Christopher,

Took me a while to figure out where your quote was coming from, eventually found it under the recreational flyers and modeler community-based organizations page on the FAA's site.

There is an Advisory Circular that explains many of the rules (AC 91-57B) but it does not cover this one. Over the years I have noticed that Law Enforcement and other emergency services have started putting up TFRs during their operations (wildfires, major accidents, fires, etc.). Obviously you would need to check before you fly your UAS and steer clear accordingly.

In the absence of a TFR you would just need to use your best judgement. You've got to remember that the FAA isn't everywhere at all times, and in many cases will rely on local law enforcement to track down violators. They've even created a toolkit for Law Enforcement. Even if there isn't something that the FAA sees as a violation, local law enforcement may want to charge you for violating local laws (interfering with emergency personnel or police operations). Certainly you would need to stop any operation if they tell you to stop. And they absolutely would have priority over someone flying a UAS recreationally.

I would also encourage you to see if there are any local or state laws concerning drones that may cover this and other operations that you should be aware of as well.
Worth noting here that it is a federal crime punishable by up to 12 months in prison to interfere with firefighting on public land. Congress has also authorized the FAA to impose a civil penalty of up to $20,000 against any drone pilot who interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response operations – regardless of whether temporary flight restrictions are in effect or not. More than 100 documented cases of unauthorized drone flights near firefighting operations have disrupted firefighting, delayed suppression, and put firefighters and the public at risk. This prompted the FAA to work with the National Interagency Fire Center to raise awareness.
While there are procedures for certificated remote pilots to fly UAS during emergency operations for certain purposes, including media coverage, approval for such operation from the incident commander is a prerequisite to seeking FAA authorization, and there is no scenario in which a recreational pilot could be authorized.
I am a 32-year commercial pilot and remote UAS pilot. For 7 years I flew forest fires for a State forest service agency in a Cessna 185F taildragger. Starting in 2017 UAS being present at the scene of a forest fire became an issue. I was the first aircraft on the scene at a forest fire in 2018 and I was told by ground firefighters over the radio that there were two UAS nearby. I immediately climbed to 2,000 AGL to give more clearance since these small UAS were invisible to me. The chance of being able to see such a small aircraft when you are traveling at 80 - 90 kts and frequently banking and turning is very low. Spotter fixed-wing aircraft like mine usually stay 500 - 1000 feet AGL, but helicopters and tankers must fly just above the tree tops to effectively drop water or retardant on a fire. These aircraft frequently fly through smoke, which further reduces their ability to spot a UAS. Collision with a UAS could injure or kill a pilot or crew chief or disable an aircraft. Imagine one coming through your windshield at 90 kts and hitting you in the face. On the fire that I mentioned ground firefighters were able to find one of the UAS operators and request that he land the UAS before the helicopter arrived. The other UAS operator could not be found and it continued to fly. When you are totally occupied flying an aircraft at low level through smoke and avoiding mountainous terrain around you while communicating with other aircraft and ground firefighters over the radio and watching fire activity, looking for a practically invisible UAS is very difficult and distracting. Fires pop up quickly and it is usually not possible to file a TFR to protect firefighting aircraft unless a fire becomes large enough to warrant multiple aircraft over several days.

After this fire was suppressed, State law enforcement officials located the two UAS operators and questioned them, as did the FAA. I believe that they were let off with a warning, but I'm not certain since I wasn't involved in that investigation.

The current guidance from Federal and State agencies to firefighting aircraft is to avoid the area or land and wait until the UAS is gone. Meanwhile, the fire continues to grow and can endanger homes and ground firefighters.

The message to UAS operators (I'm one of them), is do not fly your UAS around forest fires because you are endangering the lives of other pilots who are engaged in aerial firefighting and you are preventing suppression aircraft from fighting the fire, whether there is a TFR or not.