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Drone threat ‘only a matter of time’ for WA firefighters

Article image for Drone threat ‘only a matter of time’ for WA firefighters

Firefighting is one of the most dangerous professions in our community – so why are some hobbyists putting lives and homes at risk by flying drones over an active fire ground?

While most drone enthusiasts appear to operate within the rules – and there are rules – the Department of Fire and Emergency Services said the technology posed a problem for crews as recently as last weekend.

‘On Sunday, north of Joondalup in the Neerabup National Park, the Department of Parks and Wildlife were conducting a prescribed burn and there was a drone operating over that fire,’ DFES Aviation Director Derek Parks told 6PR’s Chris Ilsley.

‘Fortunately, the conditions were very favourable, aircraft weren’t required after that burn, it wasn’t a wildfire, but nevertheless there was a drone operating there.’

Authorities believe a stray drone could soon impact a major firefighting effort.

‘It’s something we thought we’d come across a couple of seasons ago. In fact, during the Parkerville fires, it was something we were worried about as far back as then,’ Mr Parks said.

‘We think our luck is starting to run out. There’s a lot of drones out there in the market, a lot of recreational drones and there are a lot out there for commercial use as well. It’s only a matter of time before one is used inappropriately and provides a threat to our people.

‘If we detect a drone operating over a fire ground, we really won’t have any option but to suspend flying operations in the vicinity of the drone, until we can guarantee it is safe.’

Existing laws make it illegal to ‘obstruct firefighters or emergency services personnel in the performance of their duties’, though when it comes to drones, those laws are largely untested.

‘[The Civil Aviation Safety Authority] are looking at a fine system… up to a $9000 fine. There are also existing acts that have been around for a long time that could be used in this way,’ Mr Parks said.

‘The environment that our aircraft operate in is about as hazardous as it can get, the visibility is reduced, it’s relatively confined air space, the aircraft are operating in close proximity to the ground and to each other, and to other hazards like birds of prey that are out chasing snakes and mice. What we don’t want to do is add drones to that environment.

‘What we’re going to be relying upon is the public and common sense as you do in many emergency situations.’

But the problem with common sense is that, as they say, it isn’t all that common. Mr Parks said drones weren’t the only challenge for aerial fire suppression efforts.

‘There’s a few things we need the public’s cooperation on. We use public open spaces for supporting our operations for refuelling. We draw water from local lakes and areas and the people want to spectate, they’ll get under the aircraft and it will get too congested and we have to go elsewhere,’ he said.

As for drones, Mr Parks urged anyone who spotted a drone operating near a fire ground to report it to a firefighter or police officer.

Listen to the full interview below:

For more Perth Tonight stories, click here.