These Drones Beat First Responders to the Scene

Fremont's drone-response program gets eyes on-site before emergency services arrive

5 min read

a police officer and a fire fighter standing on top of a building with their backs facing the camera watching a drone fly in the sky over a city setting

Police and fire departments in Fremont, Calif., are instituting a drone first-responder program to get an eye on incidents more quickly.


Having an eye in the sky can provide invaluable information for emergency services. That’s why the police and fire departments in Fremont, Calif., have teamed up to operate a drone first responder (DFR) program that can provide real-time video of an incident well before a squad car or fire truck can get to the scene.

The use of drones by emergency services is increasing rapidly, with research from the Electronic Frontier Foundation revealing that almost 1,500 police departments in the United States have now deployed the technology. For the most part, this involves officers or firefighters carrying a drone with them and then launching it when they arrive at the location of the incident.

But now, a joint program launched by the two Fremont emergency services will see a drone routinely dispatched from a rooftop near the center of the city in response to 911 calls. The goal, says Matt Snelson, a police captain at the Fremont Police Department, is to use the drone’s onboard video camera to gather vital information before emergency responders reach the scene. That can help dispatchers better judge what resources need to be deployed but can also give those on the ground vital context when going into potentially dangerous situations.

“We’re trying to get the DFR there on scene ahead of anybody else so that we can start getting information and making better decisions,” Snelson says. “It gives us that visual overhead. It gives us real-time information for the responding public-safety personnel and those in command.”

Cheaper drones are making these programs possible

Both the police and fire departments have been flying drones since 2017, but following a successful pilot, Fremont City Council approved the joint DFR program last month. The drone in question is a DJI Matrice 30T, flown from a rooftop close to the center of Fremont and piloted by police officers and firefighters who have been trained how to operate it.

The program is certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to operate beyond line of sight, which means that the operator can simply type in an address and the drone will autonomously navigate to it using GPS. Once the drone is at the location, a human operator takes manual control using an adapted PlayStation 5 controller.

Snelson says they decided to use high-end consumer drones, which cost around US $10,000 because the pace of innovation means that regularly upgrading is more economical than paying for a more expensive commercial-grade model that’s out of date in a few years. “The price is low enough that we’re just transitioning to newer technology more rapidly,” he says. “We’re not throwing away a $60,000 or $70,000 drone just because a newer version came out the following year.”

This isn’t the first DFR program in the United States—the police department in Chula Vista, Calif., became the first to start routinely responding to 911 calls by flying a drone in 2019. But there are still only a handful of such programs in the country and it is the first that is operated jointly by police and fire departments, says Matt Sloane, founder and CEO of Skyfire Consulting, which helped Fremont set up the program and get regulatory approval.

The two main advantages of the approach are speed and efficiency, says Sloane. Previously, an emergency responder would have to first drive to a location before launching the drone, whereas now the drone is typically on scene well before any human responders. It also means that there’s a dedicated drone pilot, he says, so an on-site responder isn’t taken out of action to fly the drone.

The idea of using drones as first responders has been discussed for years with little to show for it, says Andreas Claesson, an associate professor at the Karolinska Institute in Solna, who has been using drones to deliver automated external defibrillators (AEDs) to patients having cardiac emergencies. “I’m happy to see that they have actually gone from just ideas into real-life operations,” he says. “It’s a great initiative.”

“We’re not throwing away a $60,000 or $70,000 drone just because a newer version came out the following year.” —Matt Snelson, Fremont Police Department

Getting drones to the scene of an incident quickly could help dispatchers better allocate resources, Claesson says, which could be invaluable for already overstretched emergency services. However, he says that making these kinds of decisions based on the limited amount of information available from a drone camera does carry risks. For example, Claesson suggests a scenario in which a drone operator sending a drone to investigate a house fire films the wrong building—resulting in the emergency response being called off. “That would be catastrophic,” he says.

There’s a need for more research on these kinds of programs, he says, in particular on the organizational challenges of sharing this kind of resource between different emergency services departments. “Unfortunately, I think we’re past that stage because everyone believes so much in the drone functionality so it’s getting actually hard to run a randomized control trial on using drone systems.”

Drone responders can save time and resources

It can be particularly useful for the many 911 calls that turn out to be false alarms, says Sloane, which can be a godsend for chronically understaffed emergency services. “About 30 percent of the calls these agencies get are for things like, check an open door, check an open window, somebody’s unconscious laying in the street,” he says. “If you get there in 2 minutes and see the door’s not open, there’s nobody lying in the street, that’s up to 30 percent of calls that you might be able to clear without sending an officer or a fire truck.”

The technology has already helped with more serious police work too, says Snelson. During the pilot program last year, the Fremont police received a 911 call about a man running through a residential area banging on doors. One caller reported that the suspect had a knife in his hand, which meant that officers were rushing to the scene anticipating a potentially dangerous situation. However, the DFR reached first and was able to both locate the man and establish that it was just a water bottle in his hand.

“That really helped the police officers make appropriate tactical decisions as they responded to this person,” says Snelson. “This kind of information puts the officers and the community and the suspects in a better position for a better outcome.”

However, Snelson says the force is conscious that not everyone will be comfortable with the increasing use of drones by law enforcement. In particular, there are concerns that the technology could be used for indiscriminate surveillance. These concerns become more pertinent under the DFR model in which drones travel long distances to incidents, potentially recording along the way.

In an effort to deal with concerns, Snelson says the department held several town halls with residents and consulted with the American Civil Liberties Union before deploying the technology. They have established strict policies governing the sorts of incidents the DFR will be used for and plan to post flight records on their website.

Ultimately, the departments decided to record the entirety of their flights, to provide full transparency of their operations and avoid accusations of selective recording. But their drone software also makes it possible for the camera to automatically focus on the horizon during transit and then only point down to the ground once the drone has arrived at the scene of the incident.

“How do we prove that we weren’t flying around trying to check people’s backyards and look into people’s windows?” Snelson says. “We have a recording to show, no, we set our gimbal at zero degrees, we flew 2 miles to the incident that qualified for deployment, we focused on that incident, and then we went home.”

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