Not having a plan when it comes to aerial firefighting operations can create critical issues; this has been demonstrated in many after-action reports of major fires where topics such as communications have hampered the ability to fight a fire effectively.
After a particularly challenging fire season in Hillsborough County in 2017, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office decided the agency was going to act on gaps identified in operational logistics observed during that fire season and institute training that would make a concerted effort to rectify the issues. That training has now morphed over the years into an annual inter-agency training event that sees multiple agencies engage in both ground and aerial firefighting training that puts their skills to the test in real-world scenarios.
Identifying a Problem
“Three years ago, we had several bad fires in both Hillsborough County and Pasco County. A guy towing a trailer had a loose chain that was dragging on the road and causing sparks. Due to the hot and dry conditions, this guy was essentially driving down the road sparking multiple fires that then morphed into 20 separate fires. During the same period, a large wildfire was burning in Pasco County. With the two fires burning simultaneously, there was logistical confusion caused by limited communications and the lack of interagency training.” said Hillsborough County Sheriff Chief Pilot Jason Doyle, the organizer of the event.
With that in mind, soon after, Doyle approached surrounding agencies that had a stake in firefighting efforts to train together. The first of three training events hosted in 2018, the 2019 event, was canceled after an aircraft incident, and the 2020 event was held on January 9th, 2020.
Putting Training into Action
Aircraft involved in the event from the National Guard aircraft included a UH-60L and CH-47 from several National Guard bases throughout Florida, a Bell UH-1H Huey and Beechcraft Bonanza from the Florida Forest Service, A Bell 407 and 206 from Tampa Police and several AS-350’s from both the Hillsborough County and Citrus County Sheriff’s Offices.
Ground units were also on hand from Hillsborough County Fire, Tampa Fire, Florida Forestry, and Hillsborough County Land Management. Each having a role in setting up a controlled burn, and extinguishing the fires on the ground set as part of the exercise, or playing a part in the coordination of aerial assets from above. There was even a dive team on hand to deal with the unlikely event of an aircraft ditching in the water source used to fill Bambi Buckets for water drops. This team’s job complicated further by an alligator that had positioned itself at the banks of the water source – a spot he coveted for the entirety of the two-day event.
Day one of the training event started with an all-team briefing covering the operational areas of the training event, contingency plans, and safety briefings. Shortly after, each team headed for their respective field of the response for the event. The aerial portion of the training required the most coordination, with at least one, and sometimes two and three aircraft in the air at one time fighting the fire front started in government land a mile from the dip site where helicopters would fill their Bambi Buckets.
The helicopter movements and separation were managed with the assistance of the Florida Forest Service fixed-wing asset flying in an air attack role. This aircraft provided overwatch capability and aerial direction for drops, in addition to maintaining separation and providing additional visibility for air assets throughout the event.
“One of the best things about training like this is giving pilots and ground crew the ability to work in a simulated real-world environment. It allows everyone involved to test their equipment, processes, and procedures to see what works and what doesn’t. One of the main things we had issues with a few years ago during the fire was communications and coordination. Since the last time we have done this, we have already seen improvements have happened, which is the whole idea of this training,” said Doyle.
Just like any training or real-world event, this one did not go without its issues. The National Guard, who brought both a UH-60 and a CH-47 to participate in the event, were unfortunately limited to using just the UH-60. After a small part failure on the CH-47 left it grounded for several hours while parts were flown in from Jacksonville for repairs.
Hillsborough County had planned for the eventuality that they might be called for service during the training event, bringing a second aircraft in the event it was needed for operational responsibilities in the County during the event, which was several times over the two-day event. The training event was based at the Hillsborough County’s Sheriff’s Walter C. Heinrich Practical Training Facility. This sprawling complex caters not only to county law enforcement but has been expanded over the years to accommodate a multitude of specialized training areas. These are now used by state, local, and federal law enforcement for training.
The training facility also boasts a mock bank branch used by federal agents for training at the time of our event. The training facility is also the only location that met the criteria for such a significant event. Providing staging for the multitude of vehicles assembling from multiple agencies, a half dozen aircraft, and proximity close enough to both a water source and the land used for the burn off set by ground firefighters for the aircraft to put out.
This type of regional training requires strong support from all the involved agencies’leadership. Florida Forestry had both regional and state leadership from Tallahassee in attendance. Hillsborough County Fire Rescue and Tampa Fire provided vital agency stakeholders to the training and strong support from Hillsborough County Sheriff, Chad Chronister.
From Training to Real-World
Training gives pilots the chance to drop water on fires in a controlled environment where many aspects of the fire are controlled to give pilots the best possible scenarios to apply their knowledge in a practical setting.
In the case of the January training event held in Hillsborough County, Florida, some in attendance on the second day of training was given a chance not only to train to fight fires but to put that training into action in a real-world fire that started just a few miles from the training ground. While airborne on a training drop, ground units from Hillsborough County Fire requested aerial assistance with a fire that had started near the rear of Durant High School to the north of the training ground.
Firefighters on the ground were having difficulty fighting the fire as it grew in grassland to the rear of the high school, engulfing several beehives in the area, further complicating the response, making an aerial approach the most straightforward approach to extinguishing the blaze that threatened the school grounds. A Bell 407 from Tampa Police and an AS-350 from Hillsborough County quickly arrived on scene and began dropping water on the fire, using a nearby water source to dip from. The two aircraft made short work of the small blaze, extinguishing it before it posed a direct threat to school buildings, conducting 15 drops to put out the flames.
Applying the skills crews were practicing during training also meant that other resources needed to relocate to support the aerial firefighting effort. Teams that had already been conducting training drops were now getting low on fuel after fighting the fire. Hillsborough County’s support crews arrived on the football field of Durant high school as the ground was quickly turned into an aerial refueling station for both aircraft. This capping off a day of training that unexpectedly ended in a successful practical application of interagency cooperation – just like it was practiced.