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Some Advice For Would-Be Drone Journalists

If you intend to use your drone to record news events, take some time to know the laws in your state and learn from the people who cover news events for a living.
By Patrick C. Miller | June 11, 2015

There’s a story and video generating a great deal of discussion in the media and on the Internet. It shows a firefighter in New York spraying a drone with water as it’s shooting video of a serious house fire. The pilot—John Thompson—says his DJI Phantom 2 Vision was destroyed and is seeking $2,200 in compensation from the local fire district.

This raises some interesting legal questions. Did the pilot have a right to shoot video over private property? Should the firefighter have sprayed the drone with water? Were any laws broken by either the drone pilot or the firefighter?

I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll let the legal experts sort out those issues.

If you watch the entire video, most of it is filmed from an altitude high enough that the firefighters don’t even notice the drone. It’s only when the pilot brings it down near rooftop level that they react to its presence. In fact, at one point, a firefighter attempting to extinguish the fire in the home’s roof almost accidentally hits the drone with water.

This should have alerted Thompson that he was too close. If he was concerned about his aircraft being damaged or destroyed, that was the time to back off, but he didn’t. Instead, he flew even lower and closer. That’s when the firefighters became aware of the drone’s presence and one of them went after it with a firehose.

I’ve shot photos at fires, both as an employee of a news organization and as a private citizen. Either way, I’ve used the same approach.

While a photographer always wants to get as close as possible to the action and seeks the best vantage point available, common sense dictates that you don’t do anything that might interfere with the firefighters doing their job, and that includes becoming a distraction.

You also have to be aware that while the event might be interesting to you and present an opportunity to capture some great images, someone’s property is being destroyed at that very moment and their life is probably being turned upside down. Showing respect for the victims of a disastrous event by not becoming overly obtrusive should always be in the back of your mind.

Should the firefighter have engaged the drone with his firehose? In my opinion, no. But I also don’t know the situation on the ground from the firefighter’s perspective. That’s part of the problem when people decide to play amateur journalist in these situations. They tend to assume they know far more than they possibly can.

That being said, it’s also my opinion that Thompson operated his drone in an irresponsible manner. He got too close to the action and thus became a distraction to the firefighters. I have little sympathy for him, regardless of whether the law is on his side.

If you intend to use your drone to record news events, take some time to know the laws in your state and learn from the people who cover news events for a living. Simply assuming that you know what you’re doing could prove expensive.