City of Phoenix Will Have the Best View of Piestewa Peak With New Drones, But You Too

Kristen Mosbrucker
Drones are prohibited inside the Phoenix Mountain Preserve, according to the city of Phoenix ordinance.
If you're hiking along a hot and dusty trail this summer and spy a drone in the sky, it could be the Phoenix Fire Department, responding to a crisis on the mountain from above.

On June 1, the city of Phoenix will launch a new drone program, which will first outfit fire mountain rescue crews with the technology, and then expand to other departments — including the Phoenix police.

Fire officials say the drones are a breakthrough technology for their operations, giving firefighters a way to scope out a dangerous scene from afar. Hundreds get stranded every year. But the use of the tech for public safety is likely to raise serious questions of privacy and surveillance in the coming months, particularly once it falls into the hands of Phoenix cops.

And that is the plan, officials say, although the expansion of the technology beyond the fire department is still subject to council approval.

"We think [the opportunities are] unlimited, how much these drones are going to help us," said Phoenix Fire Captain Rob McDade.

McDade points to important uses for the fire department: Drones could fly over a warehouse fire, identifying a sagging roof or hotspots. And drones could make the department's arduous mountain rescues more efficient, allowing firefighters to find a distressed hiker trapped when it's hotter than 110 degrees out.

Drone use in public safety operations is becoming commonplace. Phoenix police, for instance, will join hundreds of law enforcement agencies around the country that deploy the devices.

Critics warn, though, that at times, police use of drones has gone beyond their intended purpose — when, for instance, drones are equipped with artificial intelligence, purporting to identify crime on their own, or when the flying devices have weapons attached.

"They are capable of highly advanced and near-constant surveillance," according to one policy brief by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights group.

So Phoenix police's own rollout of the tech is likely to face some scrutiny, particularly given the department is under investigation for what critics call a spotty civil rights track record.

Phoenix police plan to roll out the new technology during the third phase of the city's overarching drone program, on track to launch by the end of this year. Police are in line for drones after the city's fire, parks, water departments.

The police department's own plans for the technology currently are murky. Officials are drafting operating guidelines and rules regarding privacy that will eventually be made public. And, for now, all questions about the drone program have been deferred to the fire department, said Ann Justus, spokesperson for Phoenix police.

At a council committee meeting this month, fire officials laid out their vision for the program.

It's hardly a surprise that the city has chosen to debut the powerful tech with its fire department, given the scrutiny that will likely come with the tech's debut with the police. Lori Bays, assistant city manager, acknowledged that the police drone program is "probably going to have the most need for community input."

"Everybody likes fire," as McDade himself put it. "We're the good guys, right?"

But Carlos Garcia, a council member who represents downtown and east Phoenix, said he was concerned by the structure of the program, which requested blanket approval of the drones across the city departments.

"Why is this [topic] coming up this way?" Garcia asked at a recent briefing.

Given that the police department had little information so far on their use of the technology, he requested a separate vote.

"It seems a little hard for us to make this decision and then just assume that something's going to happen," he said.

Garcia declined interview requests for this story.

Officials compromised, approving the first phase of the program unanimously. City officials promised to return later with more information about the police department's plan in the coming months.

In his conversation with New Times, McDade declined to explain the police department's involvement in developing the program. But officials do say that firefighters will be the first to receive drones in part due to the strain the department is facing.

Just last year, Phoenix firefighters responded to 246 calls for help within city limits for those stuck in the mountains. Most of those mountain rescue efforts are on the city's most treacherous summits, such as Camelback Mountain and Piestewa Peak.

That figure doesn't include other mountain rescue efforts in other cities across Maricopa County, McDade said, which often call on Phoenix firefighters for assistance.

Each year, more people need to be rescued while hiking in the heat.

Complicating the effort: not enough fire department employees and more severe wildfires.

Last year, the fire season was unusually intense, the department says, requiring more resources and employees.

And drones are a relatively cheap alternative to shore up resources. They are cheaper than existing technology such as helicopters or trucks. Drones cost upwards of $2,000 and can perform many of the same functions.

The fire department plans to use thermal imaging drones, equipped with infrared camera sensors to map out temperature, which could add to the cost.

"There is urgency around getting the program up and running for the summer," said Bays, the assistant city manager.

The Phoenix Fire Department is expected to deploy its first drone in early summer if the plan pans out.

Meanwhile, the police department is still working on its own program.

At the committee meeting, assistant fire chief Scott Walker promised that the drone program would have a "governance structure" that includes strong privacy protections. The city has contracted with the Wieneke Law Group to ensure such provisions are implemented, according to the city.

Fire officials said that their agency's use of the drones will rarely capture and store video, and instead provide a livestream to firefighters that is not preserved. McDade said that he expected that any video that is captured would likely only be used for training purposes.

It's not clear if Phoenix police will implement a similar policy.

Akin to body camera footage, video from drones can be used for evidence purposes in criminal cases.

Though such footage can be valuable for prosecutors, it also raises concerns about too much police oversight and unnecessary surveillance. Civil liberties advocates have called them "sensors that can generate offenses."

Whether they will do so in the hands of Phoenix police is yet to be seen.