City looks to tackle noise issue from news helicopters

It's been a news-heavy few months in Berkeley recently with an unusually high number of media helicopters taking to the skies

The city government will consider taking action on the issue of the noise pollution caused by news helicopters with councilmember Jesse Arreguín (district 4) bringing an item to the consent calendar at Tuesday’s City Council meeting this week.

“This is a quality of life issue and, as community leaders, we should  engage in a dialogue with media organizations to try to find some solutions,” Arreguin said.

Choppers are regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration and there is therefore a limit to how much Berkeley’s leaders can do to restrict their time in the air.

Because it’s been a news-heavy few months in Berkeley recently — with the Occupy Cal protests, a shooting on campus as well as a series of earthquakes —  media helicopters have been taking to the skies at a particularly high rate, causing angst among local residents.


Berkeleyside has lost count of the number of comments, emails and tweets it has received from readers complaining of the noise disturbance caused by the choppers. When the helicopters are aloft for many hours, sometimes late into the night, people have compared the experience to living in a war zone.

Responding to an interview we conducted about helicopter protocol with KTVU Channel 2′s News Director Ed Chapuis in October, reader Helen wrote that news helicopters were “disturbing the peace, harassment, and threatening”, and Mysolosusan said: “They create a sense of disturbance and oppression — is it fair to neighbors and the thousands of quiet ordinary people living below?”

Arreguín said that, while he respects the First Amendment rights of the media to gather news, many of his constituents have expressed how frustrated and upset they are about helicopters. Possible ways to reduce the noise, at least partly, could include organizations pooling resources to use fewer choppers and voluntary time and altitude restrictions. The FAA recommends, but does not require, that helicopters do not fly below 500 ft. Arreguín is suggesting news helicopters volunteer to not fly below 1,000ft, similar to self-regulations already adopted by some news stations.

Arreguín’s recommendation advises the city to send a letter to local TV news stations asking them to  “strongly consider” the impact news helicopters have on Berkeley residents. The letter also asks the stations to weigh whether air coverage is “absolutely integral” to their stories. Several Berkeleyside readers have questioned the rationale behind launching a helicopter after a relatively minor quake, for instance. Lee Trampleasure wrote in October: “None of these magnitude -4 earthquakes are going to produce any visible damage, so don’t launch the helicopters to ‘go look for it.”

Arreguín is also considering pursuing some changes at the federal level and recommends the city send a communication to 9th District Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

At the moment, the recommendations pertain only to news helicopters. The Berkeley Police Department does not own or have ready access to helicopters for operational use. Those dispatched by Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, UCPD and the California Highway Patrol operate under different regulations, according to Berkeley police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss.

Related:
About those helicopters: Q&A with KTVU’s news director [10.28.11]