Virginia Empowers Local Responders to Protect Airspace Around Emergencies

While a work group in Maryland reviews unsafe use of unmanned aerial systems (also called UAS and commonly referred to as drones), Virginia passed a law granting authority to local first responders to stop UAS interference during emergencies.

In 2015, Maryland passed a law that preempted the county or municipal governments from law, specifically, the law “preempts the authority of a county or municipality to prohibit, restrict, or regulate the testing or operation of unmanned aircraft systems.”

MACo opposed the legislation, setting forth concerns that it could undermine the county role in protecting sensitive facilities or areas. The bill’s advocates, however, pointed to the need to reduce hurdles for drone development and testing to support industry and academic progress.

Though the bill eventually passed, before its passage, MACo was successful in adding an amendment to the legislation that required:

“a review the state of unmanned aircraft system recreational use in the State in an attempt to document incidents or patterns of the unauthorized or unsafe use of unmanned aircraft systems, including use that interferes with State or local public safety efforts or sensitive areas or facilities” – Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Development, Regulation, and Privacy Act of 2015

That review, due to the Governor and General Assembly at the end of this month, is almost complete. Through survey of state and local law enforcement agencies and other first responders, the review has uncovered several incidents of interference by drones with public safety efforts. Also, the work group heard experts from the National Capital region and the FAA discussing the reliance of the FAA on local law enforcement to uphold FAA regulations.

During Maryland’s three-year study period, neighboring Virginia passed legislation that allows fire chiefs to protect the airspace around an emergency incident.

As described by the National Conference of State Legislatures,

SB 873 specifies that the fire chief or other officer in charge of a fire department has authority to maintain order at an emergency incident including the immediate airspace. Individuals who don’t obey the orders of the officer in charge are guilty of a class 4 misdemeanor.

In Maryland’s coming legislative session, the incoming General Assembly will be able to consider both the report of Maryland’s UAS work group on UAS interfering with public safety response in Maryland, and legal precedent in Virginia to help maintain order during emergency response.

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for the final report of the UAS Work Group.