Fremont drone first responder program

This California city’s drone first responder program could cut 911 response times by 50%

A drone first responder program can certainly be useful — and many police and fire departments worldwide have used drones to improve safety through proactive patrolling and situational awareness. But drone first responder pitfalls have their pitfalls, like ensuring the drone can efficiently get to the actual site (and be charged up and ready to go in the first place). A new drone program in Fremont, California could change that.

Fremont is a city in California’s San Francisco Bay Area and is famously known as the site of the Tesla Factory and the factory where the first Mac computer was manufactured. But it’s go another sort of tech that’s compelling and it’s in the air.

On Feb. 13, 2024, the Fremont City Council approved a shared drone first responder program across its fire and police departments that could have major applications for the way cities use drones.

How the Fremont drone first responder program works

Fremont drone first responder program
Photo courtesy of Skyfire.

Here’s how the Fremont DFR program works:

  1. As soon as an incident is called in or reported to 911, a remote drone pilot deploys the drone to the scene.
  2. Those Drones are launched from fixed locations in response to public safety incidents. The drones are piloted by certified professionals.
  3. In theory, drones would arrive on-scene ahead of first responders, providing critical real-time situational awareness through live-streamed video.
  4. First responders can use that information to make better decisions, de-escalate situations when possible, and identify potential hazards and rescues.

That’s a different sort of process than the traditional means of drones for emergency response. In most fire and police departments, drones are used in what’s considered a ‘patrol type’ method. That brings added challenges, like the hope that the drone is charged and available onsite — with a pilot, no less — when needed. And emergency response is generally unpredictable, meaning the efficacy of such a program is often a bit of a gamble.

In this system approved by Fremont’s City Council, both the city’s police and fire departments will have drone access from the point of the 911 call to get eyes on the scene and greatly reduce response times.

In fact, program leaders claim it can reduce 911 response times by 50%. Here’s a YouTube explainer sharing how it all works:

How the Fremont drone first responder program got off the ground

Though the program just became official, it’s hardly new. The Fremont Police and Fire Departments already conducted a pilot program between November 2022 and January 2023. During that period, drones were deployed from strategic locations like Parkway Towers, a major apartment building in a busy area of the city. Program leaders called the program a success, adding that drones reduced response times.

The program is done in partnership with emergency response consulting group Skyfire, which is based in Atlanta.

“In many cases the dispatcher can leverage this real-time info for resource management and better communicate to responding units,” said Skyfire Chief Marketing Officer Justin McCarthy in an email to The Drone Girl. “Also, the element of additional accountability for both first responders and the community.”

Skyfire’s role includes providing training and regulatory support (such as applying for Beyond Visual Line of Site ‘BVLOS’ waivers). Skyfire has a pretty extensive history in using drones for public safety.

Skyfire Fremont drone first responder program
Photo courtesy of Skyfire.

In 2019, Skyfire made waves in San Diego, California when it helped  the Chula Vista Police Department obtain FAA approval for the nation’s first active emergency response Certificate of Authorization (COA) with a Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) provision for public safety.  The Chula Vista Police Department has had a robust drone program dating back to 2018. It’s had some bizarre flubs, including a 2020 proposal to equip drones with loudspeakers to communicate information related to COVID-19 to people below (never mind that almost everyone has a smartphone in their hands that could send them alerts, no drones necessary). It’s also found itself in court over debates as to whether drone footage can be kept secret. But by and large its drone program has been seen as a success — and an indicator that a program in Fremont could see similar victories.

And Skyfire is not the only partner working with the Fremont DFR program. The Washington Hospital Healthcare System (WHHS) has also gotten involved. Later this month, WHHS is expected to begin drone launches from its rooftop location on Mowry Avenue.

An aerial view of Fremont, California. Photo courtesy of Skyfire.

The new system brings together multiple city public agencies, and demonstrates a higher level of coordination and preparedness than what we’ve seen to date in most other drone DFR programs.

“We just don’t see police departments and fire departments coming together like this— ever,” said Skyfire Chief Marketing Officer Justin McCarthy in an email to The Drone Girl.

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