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Tipping Points: How the L.A. Fire Department’s Drone Program Could Spark Mass Adoption in Other Public Agencies

BY Zacc Dukowitz
25 December 2017

It’s a rare thing to witness a historical moment and know that it is historical.

But that seems to be what’s happening in Los Angeles right now. Derrick Ward has been working with the L.A. Fire Department to develop their drone program for about a year, and when the recent wildfires swept through the area he was called to action for the first time ever.

Derrick Ward flying in an LAFD demo for the press

As we saw with the use of drones in Houston following Hurricane Harvey, the public launch of the drone program in Los Angeles has led to a huge amount of media attention (scroll down to get a sense  for how much), and an overwhelmingly positive response from both the public and city officials.

One reason this positive coverage is so important is because the L.A. Fire Department is one of the largest fire departments in the world. Fire departments all over the U.S., not to mention around the world, look to the LAFD as a trend setter when it comes to finding new, innovative fire fighting practices.


The public launch of the LAFD drone program, and its hugely positive reception, could well mark a tipping point after which we’ll see precipitous adoption in other public agencies. Within the next year, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more drone programs being developed by police and fire departments throughout the U.S.

Some of this has to do with technology, and some of it has to do with psychology.

On the technology side, before mass adoption can happen new tools need to get to a point where they are usable and accessible for anyone to pick them up and try them out (remember when most drones were DIY, and it was pretty complicated just to buy and fly one?). Reaching this useable and accessible point also generally corresponds with cheaper prices, which helps people feel comfortable trying something new without feeling like they’re making a big financial commitment.

On the psychology side, adoption of new practices can be slow at first because people simply don’t understand the potential value of a new tool. Tom Agos of the Gurnee Police Department told us earlier this year that he was “blessed by a propane tank fire” in his town—not because of the fire itself, of course, but because he was able to use his personal drone to fly over the fire and identify smoldering spots near propane tanks that were possibly in danger of exploding.

After that fire, no further argument had to be made about the value of having a drone program in his police department. Everyone was on board, including not just police and fire department personnel, but also local citizens and political officials.

That one fire was a tipping point for the town of Gurnee—and the recent L.A. wildfires may well be a tipping point for the use of drones in fire departments everywhere, given their extreme visibility.

LAFD Media Coverage

Once the media picked up the story about the L.A. Fire Department launching their drone program to help with the terrible wildfires they’d been experiencing, it spread quickly to many other news organizations around the country. Below is some of the major coverage the LAFD drone program received.

LAFD Says Drone Technology Can Help Them Fight Fires

CBS News

LAFD adds drones to firefighting toolbox | ABC7

ABC News

Fox News

Change is hard, but it does seem like public agencies will be adopting drones more and more in the near future. We’ll be curious to see how these changes take place, and what the actual speed of adoption will look like for public agencies in 2018, and over the next few years.


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