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Phoenix hoping to launch citywide drones program

City officials discussed Wednesday rolling out a three-phased plan that would allow various departments to begin flying unmanned aerial vehicles.

PHOENIX — Phoenix could become the latest Valley city to utilize drones for flying into dangerous situations or surveying public facilities. 

City officials presented a three-phased plan on Wednesday for how it would like its departments to begin flying unmanned aerial devices within the next year. Phoenix firefighters hope to launch their first drones by this summer, followed by the parks department and then the city's police department.

Assistant Fire Chief Scott Walker said introducing drones across the city could help public safety agencies operate more efficiently as Phoenix continues to grapple with a staffing shortage.  

"The drone program could really enhance our current staff as we go out to serve our community," Walker said. "We can simply do more with one person with a drone than maybe with two or three people in the same time frame." 

Walker said the drones could be used by firefighters during rescue missions or to assess an area with hazardous materials.  

"We could send a drone in to obtain meter readings before sending our firefighters in there," Walker told the Phoenix Public Safety and Justice Committee.

During Wednesday's meeting, the committee authorized the city to begin the first phase of its drones program, which Phoenix hopes to have ready by June. The policy drafting process will involve a checks-and-balance system to ensure the ways public employees utilize drones meet the city's standards, Walker said.

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Police departments in Chandler, Scottsdale, Gilbert, Tempe, the Department of Public Safety, and the Maricopa County Sheriffs Office have all used drones in the past.  

Phoenix began exploring the possibility of introducing a drones program in 2016 and is now in the process of completing a set of policies for how each city department can possibly use the devices.  

The technology could be used by police to collect footage for reconstructing car collisions or to help manage large-scale crowd events like the scheduled Superbowl game in Glendale next year, Walker said.

Ever since law enforcement began utilizing drones, privacy advocates across the country have been calling attention to how the technology could potentially be misused to spy on citizens without a warrant.

Assistant City Manager Lori Bays said the city is consulting an attorney who specializes in privacy concerns to review Phoenix's drones program before it launches. 

There will also be an ample amount of community outreach before police officers are authorized to start flying the devices, Bays added.

Phoenix has been under investigation with the Department of Justice this past year for suspected civil rights abuses committed by the police department. 

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