Fresh Eyes Look at COA Requirements for the New Public Safety Department

I asked Captain Moffatte from the Wake Forest Fire Department to read and review the information on starting a COA flight program using his fresh eyes.

Captain Moffatte is responsible for managing multiple programs and is uniquely qualified to understand complex requirements, planning, managing data, and reporting for compliance.

To date, he has not been involved in whispers or opinions from outside parties, so I thought his assessment of program requirements from reading FAA documentation would be a fresh take on this complex subject.

COA Flight Operations Requirements for the New Department

By Captain Ian Moffatte

As public safety agencies continue to embrace new technology, some departments are deploying various forms of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).

UAS are a valuable tool that can be utilized to improve situational awareness on certain scenes, aid in search and rescue operations, and assist with various other operations.

As UAS popularity in public safety is taking off, so are the standards and regulations surrounding these programs.

Chief Pilot Steve Rhode asked me to write this article from the mindset of a firefighter and a data analyst.

I have 20 years of experience in the public safety realm, with 5 coming from EMS and 15 years in the fire service.

I am a Captain who has come offline to work on the administrative side of our department, where I pull and study data about all of our operations.

In my current role, I also do a fair amount of creating and reviewing policies and procedures.  After considerable research about UAS Public Aircraft Operations (PAO), I have compiled an exhausting list of items that will need to be addressed if your organization is operating or planning to operate under the umbrella of a Certificate of Authorization (COA).

I can only hope that this article opens the eyes of any agency choosing to operate under a COA to the serious and significant time commitment that is needed to build, train, implement, maintain, and track all of the moving pieces of a successful and, more importantly, compliant program.

Out the gate, a COA UAS program must develop and implement, with appropriate training, a Surveillance and Oversight Program comparable with what the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employs. Not being a pilot of any kind, I cannot imagine what this step entails. Still, I can imagine that it must be a substantial undertaking that the average public safety agency might not know anything about.

A public declaration letter should be drafted for your agency in conjunction with legal representation for your agency’s particular level of government, be it local, county, or state, and sent to the FAA. This declaration letter illustrates your agency’s ability to operate as a qualified public operator.

Per a new regulation, 14 CFR part 111, all agencies employing UAS pilots that partake in PAOs will need to now report several different elements on each of their pilots to the Pilot Records Database (PRD). A responsible party from your organization will need to apply for access to the database to manage all pilot accounts, records, and overall data entry into the PRD.  Some of the reportable items are listed below but follow the link provided above for a full list.

    • Drug and alcohol testing records
    • Medical certificate information (This one seems like it would be a human resources nightmare for whoever sees or enters this potentially private or confidential information into the PRD.)
    • Training
    • Qualifications, along with any failed attempts at passing a practical
    • Any aviation accidents or incidents
    • Driving records
    • Proficiency records
    • Disciplinary action records
    • Separation of employment records (Dates along with reasons for separation to be reported)

Your agency will also have to develop and implement a straightforward method for determining whether flights/operations fall under a PAO or a CAO. Flights to fall into the PAO category must be considered a “Governmental Function.”  A list of these “Governmental Functions” and other stipulations can be found here.

Obviously, any operation will need to be logged/documented. Documentation should include a narrative of the overall operation with any findings, weather conditions, flight times, etc.  Any fire or search and rescue-related flight/operation should also be documented and appropriately coded in a National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) Report.

Additionally, every agency performing PAOs will need to develop and implement a maintenance program, an inspection program, and a preventative maintenance program for their UAS, along with all of the necessary logs/recordkeeping for each of these programs.

While recordkeeping is not mandatory for public airway owner/operators, we all know how imperative documentation is in everything that we do, especially when it comes down to CYA.

These records also allow owners/operators to be confident that legitimate safety data and procedures are utilized in the maintenance and inspection programs for their UAS.  Furthermore, there will need to be some sort of compliance procedure/monitoring in place to ensure that requirements and provisions are being met.

Anyone involved in the UAS maintenance and inspections program must have their training documented, reviewed, and tracked. Whether the maintenance personnel are internal or external to your organization you must ensure that they are certified to work on a UAS, or that they meet the industry standards.

Lastly, there should be record retention policies in place for all of these previously mentioned topics. I cannot speak for what this might entail for each agency, as every city, county, and state will have different retention criteria, not to mention any FAA regulations that also govern record retention.

Thorough research and development of policies and procedures will need to be done to fulfill this crucial function.  This is an important step that should not be overlooked as the majority of the information being recorded should be protected/secured, yet easy to access should your agency be subject to an inspection or an investigation to a complaint.

All of these topics would obviously have to be expanded upon to uncover all of the fine details, many of which are left up to the individual agencies flying PAO to determine.

Another challenge is that most of these items and programs would need to be created from scratch, and creating change or new processes within the fire service is difficult.

In my opinion, I would estimate that it would take several months, if not longer, to decipher and comply with all of these regulations because the FAA and general aviation lingo are foreign to most public safety agencies.

Depending on the size of your agency or your UAS Division, complying with all of these regulations may require additional personnel dedicated to maintenance, documentation, etc., or even dishes out additional collateral duties to your current staff; not like we aren’t busy enough already.

Honestly, looking at everything that it would take to manage a compliant and successful program, it’s a lot.

Your agency will have to give some serious consideration as to whether all of the efforts that need to be put into this program is going to be worth it.

Let’s just hypothetically say that your agency decides not to grapple with all the operational requirements for flying under a COA.  Then your agency and all the pilots involved are left exposed to very serious litigation should anything happen, be it an accident, a lawsuit, or even a simple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Then what? You’ve created an Aviation Division or a UAS program that costs money and precious time, only to put the whole thing on hold to focus on legal matters.

Then, if the decision is made to continue running the program, you must recreate and rework the program, but the correct way, by implementing and following ALL the operational requirements.  It’s always better to take the time upfront and institute a program that complies with all the requirements than to go back and fix one after the fact.

I’m sure we all know some other department or agency that shortcut some regulation or requirements and got caught.  That almost always costs someone a job while creating additional work as larger outside agencies are brought in for investigations and oversight.

The bottom line here is don’t ignore or intentionally not comply with the various FAA regulations just because they’re overwhelming.

If, after all of this, you’re still undecided on how your department or agency should operate, consider this.  Many public safety agencies have adopted current policies or procedures from other departments or agencies rather than creating one from scratch; it’s the whole “Don’t reinvent the wheel” metaphor.

Why not just have all of your UAS pilots get their Part 107 and fall right into a system that the FAA has established while saving significant time and avoiding much liability?

The time savings here is enough to sway me.  If this advice still doesn’t persuade you, then it may benefit you to seek some legal advice, but preferably with an attorney knowledgeable about aviation and the FAA.