Pilots of unmanned aircraft (“drones”) who interfere with fighting wildfires, law enforcement efforts, or other first responders, such as medical flights, now are more likely to face serious civil penalties, even for first-time offenses. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has provided guidance for agency personnel who handle possible drone violations to refer all cases involving interference with first responders to the FAA Chief Counsel’s office for possible enforcement action.
In July 2016, Congress authorized the FAA to impose a civil penalty of not more than $20,000 for anyone who operates a drone and deliberately or recklessly interferes with wildfire suppression, law enforcement, or emergency response efforts.
Under FAA guidance, inspectors generally use non-enforcement methods, including education, for correcting unintentional violations that arise from factors such as flawed systems, simple mistakes, or lack of understanding.
However, given the potential for direct and immediate interference with life-saving operations where minutes matter, offenders will immediately be considered for enforcement actions. Enforcement actions can include revocation or suspension of a pilot certificate, and up to a $20,000 civil penalty per violation.
Deterring interference with first responders is critical, particularly as drone use expands exponentially. Firefighting aircraft trying to contain a wildfire have to suspend flights when a drone enters the area to avoid a possible mid-air collision. A drone flying over a crime scene or accident site can hamper police or medical aircraft operations. Ultimately, interference by a drone can cost lives.