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Los Angeles County Fire – Guardians of Southern California

Los Angeles County Fire Cover

At close to 4,100 square miles, Los Angeles County, California is one of the largest counties in the United States.  The Los Angeles County Fire Department provides fire protection and emergency medical services to over 10 million residents who reside in the unincorporated sections of Los Angeles County. That are includes 88 cities, and close to 80 miles of coastline of the Pacific Ocean and the nearby islands of Santa Catalina and San Clemente.  This territory accounts for almost 30 percent of the regions residents.

Los Angeles County Fire, which numbers close to 5000 total personnel utilizes a wide array of advanced fire apparatus and lifesaving equipment to protect and serve its citizens, including eight helicopters as part of the Departments Air Operations Section that are available 24/7 for missions including aerial firefighting and search and rescue.

LA County Fire Air Support fly both the Bell 412 and the Sikorsky S-70. Photo by Scott Dworkin.
LA County Fire Air Support fly both the Bell 412 and the Sikorsky S-70. Photo by Scott Dworkin.

HISTORY

L.A. County’s Air Operations Section was formed in 1957 with a single pilot and mechanic. The early operation flew one Bell 47 helicopter capable of dropping 100 gallons of water.  Today’s Air Operations Section is headquartered and located at Barton Heliport at Whiteman Airport in Pacoima, California.  Air Operations is headed by a Battalion Chief, and three Fire Captains that support day to day operations.  The unit is staffed by 12 pilots that are augmented on duty in the air by 18 qualified aircrew Firefighter/Paramedics.

The L.A. County Barton Heliport is staffed by 17 full time mechanics that maintain the Departments fleet of helicopters which currently consists of three Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks, (Copters 15, 16 and 19), and five Bell 412’s, (Copters 11, 12, 14, 17 and 18).

EQUIPMENT

The unit’s helicopters are all multi

Los Angeles County Fire helicopters are on call 24 hours a day to fight fires or provide search and rescue response around the greater Los Angeles area and beyond. Image by Scott Dworkin.
Los Angeles County Fire helicopters are on call 24 hours a day to fight fires or provide search and rescue response around the greater Los Angeles area and beyond. Image by Scott Dworkin.

mission capable and can be configured for fire, emergency medical services and search and rescue missions as needed.  Each are equipped with fixed water drop tanks for aerial firefighting and hoists for search and rescue operations as well as provisions to carry swift water rescue teams and their associated equipment.  Additionally, all of the Air Operations helicopters utilize 30 million candle power Spectrolab SX-16 Nite Sun searchlights no assist in night operations. The helicopters are equipped with specialized infrared scanning devices and monitors which to allow crews to find hot spots during a fire from the air that are not able to be seen with the naked eye. These devices are used to direct target water or retardant drops on fires and also assist in strategic direction for fire crews on the ground to make sure hot spots do not reignite or spread.

Capable of transporting up to 13 (3 crew and 10 passengers) and fitted with a 1,000 US gallon (3,800 L) tank, the S-70 Firehawk is arguably one of the most effective aerial firefighting and rescue tools available anywhere in the world.  Los Angeles County took delivery of its first two Firehawk helicopters in 2001 to better serve the emergency needs in the sprawling metro area. The County was the first local government agency in the world to purchase this type aircraft.

HELICOPTER OPERATIONS

L.A County Fire acquired their third S-70 in 2005. A fast and highly maneuverable derivate of the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter found in service with various militaries around the world, these helicopters provide Los Angeles County with advanced technology fire-fighting and paramedic capabilities. The Firehawk derivative includes specific firefighting and EMS support equipment, specialized medical service interiors for evacuation of patients, multi mission capable avionics, night vision device capable avionics and is fitted with landing gear extensions to clear the added belly tank underneath the helicopter.

The Firehawk has the ability to drop water or fire suppressant material accurately over a target area. Once at a water source the aircrew have flexible options for refilling the water tank. The helicopter can land next to the source while water is pumped aboard via a connector on the side of the tank or it can hover directly over any water source, and water can be pumped aboard through a 3.6m-long snorkel hose, both options at a rate of 1000 gallons a minute. The tank also contains a 115 litre foam reservoir. Foam can be mixed with the water during flight at whatever concentration is required. With its powerful twin General Electric (GE) T700 engines it can rapidly transit to and from a water source and back to the fire area in mere minutes.  Additionally, because of the immense power provided by the GE engines the helicopter is capable of doing very heavy long line hoists, even at higher altitudes where most helicopters would struggle.

The Air Operations five Bell 412 can each transport up to 10 (2 crew and 8 passengers) and are fitted with a 360 US gallons (1,400 L) tank.  Two of the 412s are the HP version which is powered by the Pratt & Whitney PT6T-3BE engine, with an improved transmission over the original 412 model, with the other three being the newer Bell 412EP version, powered by the Pratt & Whitney PT6T-3D engines, featuring a dual digital automatic flight control system.

Both variants of the 412 utilize a composite four blade main rotor system. Similar to the Firehawk, the 412 is capable of fulfilling the multi-mission role of medical response and transport, technical rescue, personnel transport and aerial firefighting. The 412 can ferry and insert a crew of eight wildland firefighters rapidly to the frontlines and features an average fill time for 360-gallon onboard tank of only one minute, making the average turn-around time on drops a quick five minutes, including fill time, making the 412 a strong asset during a firefight with each of the county’s Bell 412 helicopters able to deliver over 4,000 gallons of fire suppression material per hour, which in many cases exceeds the performance of larger, fixed-wing air tankers.

In addition to its own fleet of aircraft, the county leases at least two Bombardier CL-415 air tankers, commonly known as Super Scoopers, from Quebec, Canada during the active wildfire season in Southern California, typically September through January.  The amphibious aircraft are capable of landing in the nearby Pacific Ocean or any large body of water and “scooping” up to 1,600 gallons of water from the surface giving them the ability to stay airborne and relatively close the scene of the wildfire for an extended period of time providing there is a large enough water source nearby.

Most of the bodies of water used by the amphibious aircraft have been predetermined as adequate to be used by the aircrews well ahead of fire season and are strategically located throughout the County, however the aircraft provides the flexibility to use any water source as long as it has the required room to land and then take off. The County also leases at least one Erickson Air-Crane S-64F that can hold 2,650 gallons of water or retardant, also based at Van Nuys, to augment its fleet of helicopters.

COUNTY OPERATIONS

The mission of covering such a large area, from the Pacific Ocean in the west to the highest mountains in the Angeles National Forest at over 10,000 feet, out to the remotest parts of the local Southern California desert in the east provides Air Operations with a multitude of calls on a daily basis that range anywhere from vehicle accidents that require an aeromedical evacuation flight to a local trauma center, to lost or injured hikers in the hills all the way to fighting the largest brushfires.

Because of the vast distances involved the unit forward deploys a minimum two helicopters and aircrew daily to locations strategically spread across the county.  These locations are the North Operations (NCAS) at Fire Station 129 in Lancaster, the East Operations (ECAS) at Bracket Air Field, in LaVerne, and depending on fire conditions a third location, the Central Operations (WCAS) at Fire Camp 8 in Malibu is used.  These forward deployed locations are designed to provide expedited EMS and Firefighting service in remote locations and areas without available nearby Trauma Centers.  By using these forward deployed locations, once dispatched, helicopters typically arrive on scene within 10-15 minutes.  L.A. County Fire also utilize over 100 pre-determined helispot landing areas spread throughout the county that hold a water supply, typically a hydrant, so that a team on the ground can forward deploy to the helispot, set up for the helicopter, where the pilot can then land, refill and quickly be airborne and back on the fire line.

HIRING AND TRAINING

With the demanding and varied missions flown by the county, to be accepted for employment by the Air Operations Section is no easy task.  Pilots who apply typically will have thousands of hours of experience in rotorcraft. The department will only consider pilots that have experience flying in all types of environments and conditions, given what they will likely experience flying for Los Angeles County.

If a prospective pilot’s application is accepted, the department will then send applicants through a six-month probation/training period, this includes initial training at Flight Safety International on the Bell 412. If an applicant has prior Sikorsky S-70/UH-60 military experience, those applicants may also attend the S-70 initial course also at Flight Safety during that first six months. If they do not have prior UH-60 experience, the initial transition training will take place in that aircraft after the six-month probation is completed.

Los Angeles County Fire helicopters are used not just for firefighting, but also for search and rescue work. Image by Scott Dworkin.
Los Angeles County Fire helicopters are used not just for firefighting, but also for search and rescue work. Image by Scott Dworkin.

The first six months are typically devoted to transitioning the new pilot to the department’s multi-mission roles of firefighting, search and rescue, and emergency medical calls. This transition includes each pilot obtaining an EMT-I certificate, Incident Command System training, wildland fire behavior training, night vision goggle training, and training specific to the County Fire Department.

As the department hires only experienced pilots, the initial transition period flights are mostly designed to introduce new pilots to the agency to the surrounding area, airspace, mission specific requirements with the existing flight crews, maintenance, and support personnel.  Finally, an evaluation flight with one of the unit’s senior pilots is the final step in the probation period before the new hire pilot becomes a permanent employee.  Once the probation period is complete, the pilot then will receive further training, including more advanced training in EMT skills and annual 412 and S-70 refresher training. Pilots also receive mission training in hoist, short-haul, and swift-water and blue water rescues as well as external load, large animal rescue, helitorch, and unaided/aided (NVG) flight training.  Consistent and continual training, even for the most veteran pilot and aircrews is paramount at Air Operations, as many of the pilots expressed that they will see things on flights every week that they may have not seen before.

A snapshot look into some of the statistical data from the unit bears out the diversity of calls, as last year Air Operations responded to over 1000 emergency medical service calls, and over 280 fire calls alone resulting in over 700,000 gallons of water and foam dropped.  The aircrews also conducted close to 100 hoist rescues throughout the County.

MUTUAL AID

The assets of LA County Air are also routinely called by other agencies in the local area for support on various calls, especially on large brush fires as part of the mutual aid system in place.  The mutual aid system was established to provide assistance to jurisdictions in nearby counties and throughout the state, when the size of a major emergency exceeds the control capabilities of a local fire department. This system can be activated for such things as major wild fires, earthquakes, and large scale hazardous materials emergencies.  The air assets from LA County Fire are always in high demand and requested by mutual aid incident commanders and the air unit may respond several times per month during fire season as part of this system.  All of this makes Los Angeles County’s Air Operations the largest, and busiest multi-mission Fire Department aviation program in the United States.

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Los Angeles County Fire story, read it on Heliweb Magazine online here.
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