POWAY — A new ordinance in Poway would prohibit drones from launching or landing in the city during disasters such as wildfires, when the unmanned devices might interfere with emergency responders in planes or helicopters.
Officials said the measure — which the Poway City Council is set to vote on Tuesday — could be the first of its kind in the state. It would replace a temporary “urgency” ordinance adopted in September that sought to address the same concerns, but banned drones outright in most of the city. That law — which many said would be hard to defend in court — was not enforced, nor was it ever challenged.
Other cities in California have restricted drones from flying over certain events and locations, though none appear to have created an ordinance that would apply to disasters. Santa Clara, for example, now has a law banning the flying of drones within a half mile of Levi’s Stadium, which will host the Super Bowl in February.
Poway’s new ordinance, crafted by City Attorney Morgan Foley, is far more specific and less inclusive than the city’s temporary ban. It states that drones can’t be launched, operated or landed in Poway if the city’s Director of Safety Services has decided that a situation has arisen that could require aircraft to respond. It does not specifically prohibit the flying of drones — Foley said he believes that is solely the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The ordinance also breaks down the city into four quadrants — north, east, south and west. The ban could only be applied to the quadrant that is threatened although more than one quadrant could be so designated simultaneously.
The driving force behind the regulations is Mayor Steve Vaus, who said he grew concerned after 20 vehicles burned up in Cajon Pass north of Los Angeles on July 18, when drones equipped with small cameras starting flying over the site to record the horrifying scene — causing firefighters to halt water drops for a brief time out of fear the drones might collide with the emergency aircraft.
The drones were probably operated by “somebody looking to go viral on YouTube, get a bunch of hits, probably make a bunch of money, but on the back of our firefighters and our community,” Vaus said Friday. “And that’s just not acceptable.”
He said the temporary ordinance created as many problems as it could have solved. “The intent all along was to have a very narrow definition of when and where (drones could operate), so we didn’t get in the way of anybody’s fun, but so we could keep folks safe,” he said.
Since the urgency ordinance went into effect on Sept. 1 nobody has been cited, officials said.
State and federal law regarding the use of drones is evolving. Last month, legislation was passed in Sacramento making it a crime if a private drone interfered with emergency aircraft, but that bill was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
According to data collected by Cal Fire and other state agencies, more than 10 unauthorized unmanned aircraft systems have interfered with or hampered emergency response efforts in the state just this year.