De Luz firefighting exercise sparks renewed calls for promised nighttime helicopters


Last updated 9/13/2007 at Noon

It has been three years since San Diego County’s “Copter 1” became equipped with high-tech night vision gear (NVG) to fight fires at night. The use of NVG helicopters remains rare nationwide, with reportedly only three municipal agencies allowing it: the city and county of Los Angeles and the city of San Diego. Los Angeles County has 14 helicopters certified for nighttime fire operations; San Diego County has but one, Copter 1.

In July 2004, San Diego County Supervisors supported purchase of two helicopters (Copters 10 and 12) for San Diego County. In the words of Supervisor Bill Horn at the annual State of the County speech, these helicopters were purchased with the expressed purpose “to be able to fight fires at nighttime.”

A few weeks ago, firefighters from Palomar Mountain, De Luz Volunteer and San Diego fire departments trained with Copter 1 and its crew in De Luz Canyon on 43 acres owned by Warren and Laura Bryant. The training exercise was designed to effectively execute nighttime firefighting tasks associated with after-dark helicopter water drops. It was their second nighttime fill-and-drop exercise in the last 12 months.

Palomar Mountain came to the exercise with an engine and seven firefighters and the De Luz department had eight engines and 22 firefighters participate in the training. The same exercise is done with the county’s Copter 10 and 12 but during daylight hours.

Weather conditions during the month and on that day had been hot and dry, not unlike one nearly four years ago on October 25 that marked the flashpoint for the largest fire in California’s recorded history, the Cedar Fire, just south of Ramona in central San Diego County.

That fire, fanned by strong 40-mph Santa Ana winds, burned 280,000 acres, destroyed 2,820 structures, killed 15 people and injured 104 firefighters. Many of the victims were killed on the first day of the fire as they tried to escape the fire on foot and in their vehicles. It lasted 12 days and was one of 15 fires that month in San Diego County.

A San Diego County Sheriff’s Department helicopter had phoned in the brushfire report and called for air response. Another sheriff’s helicopter with a water bucket on its way to the fire was called off because it was nearing sunset and lacked authorization to continue. The return to base was in compliance with State and Federal safety rules.

Mike Manchor, chief of the De Luz Volunteer Fire Department, recalls attending an operational briefing the evening of the Cedar Fire. “The Incident Commander announced that the fire had started and it was still an hour before sunset [5:37 p.m.]. The Cedar Fire might have been stopped if copters were not grounded 30 minutes before sunset as per CDF [California Department of Forestry] and USFS [United States Fire Service] standing orders.”

The training exercise on August 25 in De Luz Canyon included 10 nighttime ground fills and 10 firefighter-directed airdrops in the hills and property owned by the Bryants. It was clearly demonstrated that it takes only 17 seconds to fill Copter 1’s tanks with 375 gallons of water. With a fuel tank of 220 gallons, it can stay in the air 90 minutes. A Copter rescue crew is composed of a pilot, a paramedic and the crew chief. In addition, a six-person fireman hand crew can be transported to a fire line or other location.

Unfortunately, CDF and California State Fire Service (CSFS) agency policies appear to negate the stated purpose for purchasing the copters. As De Luz Fire Chief Manchor put it, “I understand CDF and USFS will not allow Copter 1 to be utilized in De Luz at night, even if I request it, unless it can be shown to be a lifesaving situation. We are a State Response Area that must abide to CDF policy in copter usage.”

Copter 1 has two 900-horsepower gas turbine engines spinning its rotors at 500 miles per hour. Fully equipped, Copter 1 cost $5 million. It is part of San Diego City Fire Department’s equipment.

Chief Manchor applauded the participants in the exercise, during which “we did 10 water drops and fills in 35 minutes with Copter 1 after dark. Did I feel safe with Copter 1? Totally! So did all my firefighters.”

Basic to the NVG on Copter 1 are third generation goggles worn now by copter crewmen. Mounted on the crew’s helmets at a cost of nearly $12,000, the goggles are the same as those used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan and effectively enable the viewer to see in the dark. Some of the new goggles available provide full color vision.

The Copter’s sophisticated onboard computer system can coordinate with the its infrared video camera and be down-linked to ground units with laptops or cell phones for mapping and reevaluation of the status of fires, enabling fire equipment to be efficiently deployed.

A three-million-candle power slave floodlight mounted below the cockpit works in tandem with the video camera as needed. Aerial views and photography are even more valuable during daytime operations.

Copter 1 has hoist rescue equipment capable of pulling even a large animal, such as a horse (which has been done), to a safer environment. It is the only one of four county helicopters equipped and certified for night firefighting operations and rescues.

There are reasons for the limited use of night vision technology for firefighting, according to Chief Brian Fennessy, who developed and manages San Diego’s Special Operations Division and Copter 1’s activities.

One of those reasons, he believes, is resistance to change. “Some pilots and managers believe that NVG technology represents a ‘change’ that is not necessary. ‘We have always done it this way and have rarely had a negative experience.’”

“Cost is a justifiable reason for some agencies not operating an NVG program,” according to Chief Fennessy. “The cost of operating a quality and safe NVG program can be extensive. This is one program that cannot be operated safely if there are budgetary constraints that limit the requirements of a safe and effective program.

“Another reason…is the large geographic area in which state and wildland agencies conduct business. This coupled with the varying levels of pilot experience would make managing a statewide and/or federal program problematic.”

Both pilot John Finnerty of the Los Angeles County Fire Department and Fennessey believe that a “carding” process with uniform requirements for pilots and aircraft would enable safe multi-agency nighttime flying.

CDF is an example of such an agency with a large geographic area. The agency now operates single-engine helicopters, which, according to Chief Fennessy, “do not provide acceptable levels of safety when dropping water at night. A catastrophic engine failure at night while working over an urban interface fire would create a situation that would be difficult to defend when multi-engine helicopters, such as Copter 1, have become the modern day industry standard.”

Finally, there is the obvious concern for loss of life for both crew and people on the ground should a helicopter crash at night. The dangers and risks are certainly real and significant.

Even with night-vision goggles, the 40-degree field of view offered to the wearer is very restrictive when compared to a 200-degree daytime field of view without them. Innumerable obstructions such as utility wires may be missed if you don’t have advance knowledge of where to look for them. Information of this type is constantly being sought and added to Copter 1’s onboard computer database to increase the margin of safety.

The San Diego Fire Department Air Operations Division’s NVG fire and rescue program is only the second of its kind in the United States and is reportedly considered a model for other agencies providing NVG emergency fire and rescue helicopter services in the future.

Most fire agencies and professionals agree that conditions in California are approaching the worst in a century. As Chief Manchor has pointed out, “most of the bad fires have started or continued into the night. It makes little sense having the capabilities, then being tied down not to act due to bad policies.”

As previously indicated, USFS and CDF policy does not allow for night water drops on lands under their protection unless it can be shown to be a lifesaving situation or the if fire is approaching a local responsibility area (LRA) and the incident command has been unified.

At that point, the Unified Incident Commander could direct that NVG firefighting operations take place if it was determined that the fire was a direct threat to the LRA.

Chief Manchor believes that the risks of not utilizing available technological prowess with night vision equipment are far greater than the risks of using it.

“My personal belief on night firefighting Copter usage is that it is proven effective and safe,” he stated. “Scores of firefighting aircraft have been lost during daylight operations in this state. I recall only one night loss incident about 20 years ago in [Los Angeles] County that was due to a ground coordination problem, not pilot error.”

Because of the cost factor to large operations like the CDF and the geographical size for which they are responsible, Chief Fennessey believes smaller, local agencies will be more likely to begin operating NVG programs in the future.

“Federal wildland agencies contract for their helicopters,” he said. “It would be difficult for the federal government to properly manage a NVG program when contract vendors are providing the aircraft and crews.”

The Santa Ana winds are expected again in October and fire conditions are expected to remain extremely dry and hazardous in southern California. Fire professionals across the state have questioned the wisdom of not taking advantage of the latest night vision technology to prevent fires, property destruction and human lives.

As Chief Manchor stated, “Firefighting is an inherently dangerous business that involves reasonable risk. Training and then more training is the key to safety in all dangerous situations… I know in my heart what my crews can do safely and do well. This is one of them.”


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