In early July, Riverside County Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez and First District Supervisor Kevin Jeffries were alerted that it was difficult to get approval to use of the MQ-9 Unmanned Aircraft System (drone) in support of wildland fire operations and for use in reconnaissance overflights of major fires.
The two supervisors wanted to support the California National Guard’s use of the drones for firefighting reconnaissance missions as firefighters were battling seven wildland fires in July. The two supervisors felt that working with Congressional leaders Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., that a solution to speed up the approval process was attainable. Supporting Gov. Jerry Brown, the California National Guard, our firefighters, and incident commanders required a change to a defense department policy instituted by former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska. Hagel would receive the requests through Pentagon channels and then wait three days to approve them.
McCarthy, Calvert, Brown, Jeffries, and Perez all thought three days was too long for an approval when it comes to saving lives and property.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis agreed and took immediate steps to change the drone approval policy.
First, he authorized the California National Guard, under the command of Maj. Gen. Dave Baldwin, to use the MQ-9 drones to provide reconnaissance support to firefighters and incident commanders through the end of the fire season. He granted the Oregon National Guard the same authority. Next, the Defense Secretary’s staff rewrote the entire policy to improve the process of using drones assigned to 12 states for firefighting mission and other operations. The “Action Memo” was released on July 25, 2018.
Supervisor Perez said, “This is an example of bipartisan cooperation on the regional, state, and federal level that resulted in a positive change in Pentagon policy for the nation, states, and those facing the threat of wild land fires destroying their homes and business.”
Perez praised McCarthy, Calvert, Gov. Brown, Mattis, the county lobby team in Washington, D.C., his staff, and the Governor’s Military Department staff working in the Washington, D.C., for working on a drone policy that works better for everyone, saves lives, and property.
Working together, from both sides of the aisle, a better drone policy was developed, it was circulated in a record amount of time, and the nation is safer today because of the ability of the leaders noted above to put policy above party and the interest of the American people first. Bipartisanship lives on in our nation’s capital as it has for centuries. Sadly, we don’t hear news reports when the administration, the Congress, our governor, and regional officials work together for the good of all concerned.
Editors Note: Tom Freeman is a former, three-term elected executive board member of the National Guard Association of California and a life member of the National Guard Association of the United States. He serves as chief of public policy for Supervisor V. Manuel Perez. A veteran of the United States Air Force, California National Guard, and the states reserve, Freeman retired as a Colonel in November 2007. He is the recipient of the state’s highest military honor for Distinguished Service, The Order of California. His military service began during the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979.