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Sonoma County wants to rein in drones during emergencies

If you’ve been saying “those drones are out of control!” Sonoma County supervisors have heard you.

The County of Sonoma Board of Supervisors has given a preliminary thumbs-up to an ordinance that prohibits private or commercial drones from interfering with or impeding government response during local emergencies and public safety events. This includes fires, floods, law enforcement operations, crime scenes, and search and rescue operations.

The new ordinance, which will come back to the Board for a final vote on Aug. 17, allows civil enforcement against private or commercial drone operators who interfere with government operations during emergency or public safety response. Interfering drone operators can be issued an administrative citation that carries a fine of $100 per violation and up to $500 for repeat violations. Drone use during emergencies or public safety events is still OK as long as it doesn’t interfere or impede authorities in their response and operations.

“Private drone use is increasingly common, and while state and federal laws regulate use, a gap exists for enforcement at the local level,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, Chair of the Board of Supervisors. “This ordinance provides the adequate tools for swift on the-ground enforcement when a drone interferes with emergency response.”

The Federal Aviation Administration permits the operation of recreational drones below 400 feet of uncontrolled airspace within the visual line of sight of the operator on the ground. Federal regulations prohibit drone operation in a reckless or unsafe manner, around airplanes and helicopters, and within certain distances from airports. Because aviation safety inspectors are unable to immediately travel to the location of an incident, federal authorities rely on local agencies to deter and pursue enforcement actions to stop unauthorized operations. Previously, Sonoma County did not have a local enforcement option to provide warnings and civil citations in situations involving unsafe drone use.

The new Sonoma County ordinance was developed with insight from the County of Sonoma Department of Transportation and Public Works, Sonoma Water, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and Permit Sonoma, which often serve as first responders to public safety events providing essential services during the emergency. Preventing private drone operators from interfering with operations is critical to ensure the safety and security of personnel and equipment on the ground and in the air. The County is conducting outreach and education to the public and other agencies about the new ordinance.

To view the full report and presentation to the Board of Supervisors regarding the new ordinance, please visit:

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