The August issue of the Observer ran an article about the Fullerton Police Department’s 30-day test using drones as First Responders. I was able to interview Lieutenant Tony Rios, the Commander of the Fullerton Police Department’s drone program, and the North Orange County SWAT Commander.
I have known Tony since he provided my first police ride-along when he was a Corporal and later when I covered a story when he produced a multi-agency armed shooter drill at the EvFree Church. The drone test involved the Flying Lion company, which provided the high-tech drones and the workforce required to maintain them and recharge the batteries during the test period.
One of the department’s nine drone-certified police officers controlled the drone out of the dispatch center at the police department. These officers are FAA-certified, operate under FAA guidelines, and adhere to privacy laws and FPD policies covering Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS/Drones) use. The area for the test was from Hillcrest Park to the 91 Freeway and from Raymond to Euclid, which included the downtown bar area. The drone was centrally located atop the city hall.
The 30-day test responded to over 300 calls for service. In 34 responses, the drone arrived on the scene 45 seconds to 2 minutes before the patrol officer. While this is not a significant difference, it provided the officer the advantage of knowing in more detail what was going on in advance. The technical term for this is ‘situational awareness,’ which is a valuable asset for the responding officer.
To illustrate this point, Rios showed a video of one incident, a routine family disturbance response. A patrol officer was dispatched, and the drone was deployed. When the drone arrived, it observed a female and a male arguing in the backyard. The drone video also noticed a third individual in the rear of the yard carrying a rifle. The drone officer immediately notified the responding officer, and the incident changed into a containment response. Additional units were dispatched, and the surrounding area was secured. The responding officer, who was now aware of the weapon, entered the yard with his gun drawn and confronted the residents. The rifle was immediately dropped, and the situation was concluded with no further issues. Without the situational awareness provided by the drone and the pilot officer controlling it, the responding officer could have found himself confronted by an armed individual, which could have resulted in a police-involved shooting. The results would have been a lengthy investigation and possible lawsuits for the city.
This situation highlighted the value of the police having additional situational awareness provided by the aerial coverage when responding to calls. These drones operated afternoons until midnight on Wednesdays through Thursdays and between 4:30 PM and 2:30 am on Fridays to provide coverage for downtown bar scene issues. While the drone provides excellent color video during the day, the drone uses infrared (heat-sensitive) images at night. The heat signature is very valuable in locating hidden suspects and recently driven vehicles. This feature proved useful in stopping individuals trying to find unlocked cars in the parking structure, in checking out problems at the train station, and individuals in the parks after hours.
In all, 57 calls were completed without patrol officer intervention, freeing those officers to cover more critical calls. Rios said the program contracted with Flying Lion, which would provide the drones and maintenance support staff, would cost around $22,000 annually. That is far cheaper than the $25 million that Anaheim pays for its Angel 1 helicopter operation. Fullerton occasionally requests air support from Anaheim but is billed for the service as used.
Fullerton currently has four drones in its Tactical Drone program. These units are carried in the trunks of the pilot officers’ patrol vehicles. They can be deployed to provide ‘an eye in the sky’ during an active tactical response, but they can’t provide the immediate response coverage the DFR program would provide.