Drones could be invaluable life savers or a dangerous threat to public safety.

Because lives and property are at stake, the public safety subcommittee of the San Antonio city council received a briefing Wednesday on the possibility of developing local drone regulations.

Both fire and police personnel said they know having eyes in the sky during critical incidents is an important resource.

San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said that the city has purchased four commercial-grade drones and fire personnel are in training now to learn how to safely deploy the new tools.

They call the initiative RAPTOR, for Remote Aircraft Platform Tactical Operational and Response.

Hood said that the city learned one powerful lesson last week when tornadoes ripped several neighborhoods to shreds. Darkness and weather conditions prevented the deployment of drones, but he said that next time there is a critical incident, his department will be prepared.

"To be able to put a drone up, to be able to look at some of these structures with an infrared camera. To be able to pull up heat signatures, it's going to be beneficial and enhance our response in the future," said Hood, citing the recent catastrophic and fatal warehouse fire in Oakland, California as a perfect example of why drones are important. “They could have placed a drone in there. They didn't have that capability, so they had to sit outside for a couple of days to make sure the building was secure enough for them to get in.”

Hood added that being able to cover a lot of territory quickly and safely with instant results is very important.

“We could send that information back to the command vehicles. That's going to help us out a lot because I may not be able to get a helicopter up or it may not be a situation where we can put an aerial platform up or a ladder, so we're going to have eyes on in a way that's going to help us out and keep our firefighters safe,” Hood said. “So we're really excited about it.”

Police Chief William McManus agreed about the tactical value of the flying machines.

“I'm talking about SWAT-type situations, traffic crash situations, primarily on the highway, but anywhere really, any situation that would be beneficial for public safety and police safety,” Chief McManus said.

McManus told the committee that a number of drones flew over the recent Martin Luther King march and there were no problems. He said that it’s a good reason to come up with guidelines now.

"You can't tell who is flying them in the crowd. It could be anybody in the crowd or somebody off behind a house somewhere," said Chief McManus, who provided an overview of federal regulations as part of a discussion about how local laws might be able to enhance public safety. "We certainly don't want to overregulate, but we do want to regulate to the point where the public is protected from things that are flying over their heads."

"We would not use it to conduct surveillance," McManus added.

District 10 Representative Mike Gallagher is a retired Air Force air traffic controller. He called unregulated drone use by civilians an accident waiting to happen.
"It would be like allowing children to play on an interstate highway," said Gallagher, who noted that the issue is critically important near the airport. "One of the problems we have to be concerned about is how vulnerable aircraft are that are approaching an airport. If a drone gets in the way of that airplane trying to land, we could see a horrible crash happen.”

Wednesday's briefing required no vote by the committee. The topic will be brought to the full council after further review.