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Fire chiefs seeking help in drones bills

Initially, the bill was just about invasive species; now firefighting is an issue

As legislation continues to move swiftly through the Florida Legislature to allow increased governmental use of drones, Florida’s fire chiefs are seeking to get on board.

On Tuesday the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee took up, and swiftly approved, HB 659, which would allow use of drones by Florida wildlife and forestry officials for two purposes: to monitor invasive species encroachment on public lands, and to help manage and fight wildfires.

The latter purpose came by way of an amendment introduced and tacked on Tuesday. The provision is identical to one added to the Senate counterpart of the bill in a Senate committee hearing on Monday.

At both stops, the Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association spoke up with an “us too” request, citing the same rationales for drones’ use in structure fires that had been cited for the wildfires amendment: that the aerial camera devices could help firefighters understand what is going on with the fires, and that the drones could help improve safety for firefighters at the scene.

“The fire chiefs are interested in pursuing an amendment that would allow the firefighters to use drones in their jobs of firefighting,” said Lealman Fire Control District Division Chief and Fire Marshal Jim Millican, representing the Florida Fire Chiefs Association. “With that, we look forward to working with Rep. [Jason] Fischer on some proposed language at the next committee stop.”

On Monday, Florida Fire Chiefs’ Association Executive Director Ray Colburn sought “consideration” for drones use in fire and rescue operations, though he was less clear about making any specific requests for an amendment.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday whether Fischer, sponsor of HB 659, or Sen. Ben Albritton, sponsor of SB 822, might be open to the fire chiefs’ request of expansion through amendments of the bills’ purpose, to suit firefighters. Fischer, a Republican from Jacksonville, missed the House committee meeting Tuesday, so Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure of Dover stepped in for him to present the bill. In Monday’s Senate Committee on Governmental Oversight and Accountability hearing, Albritton, a Bartow Republican, did not address Colburn’s comments.

Both bills have one more committee stop. HB 659 must go to the House State Affairs Committee and SB 822 still has to go before the Senate Rules Committee.

The initial purpose of the bills was to allow state wildlife and forestry officials to use drones to track pythons, lygodium and other invasive species causing havoc throughout Florida, often deep in the bush of Florida’s natural areas.

So far, both Fischer and Albritton have run the bills with care, stressing that their intention is for a very limited expansion of drones use by the government.

Written By

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at scott@floridapolitics.com.

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