L.A. County Fire, which numbers close to 5000 total personnel utilize 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 is available 24/7 for missions including aerial firefighting and search and rescue.
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 are led 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 and 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 Department’s fleet of helicopters which currently consist of three Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks, (Copters 15, 16 and 19) and five Bell 412’s (Copters 11, 12, 14, 17 and 18).
The unit’s helicopters are all multi-mission capable and can be configured for fire, emergency medical services and search and rescue missions as needed. Each is 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 NiteSun searchlights to 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 unable to be seen with the naked eye. These devices are used to direct target water or retardant drops on fires and to also assist in strategic direction for fire crews on the ground to make sure hotspots do not reignite or spread.
Capable of transporting up to 13 (three 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 of aircraft.
L.A County Fire acquired their third S-70 in 2005. A fast and highly maneuverable derivative 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 can drop water or fire suppressant material accurately over a target area. Once at a water source the aircrew has 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 per minute. The tank also contains a 115-liter foam reservoir. If needed, 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 minutes. Additionally, because of the immense power provided by the GE engines, the helicopter is capable of doing 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 (two crew and eight passengers) and are fitted with a tank that will hold 360 US gallons (1,400 L.) Two of the 412s are the HP versions which are powered by the Pratt & Whitney PT6T-3BE engines, 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 turnaround time on drops a quick five minutes (including fill time).
The quick turnaround time for the helicopter defines the 412 as a definite asset during a firefighting operation, with each of the county’s Bell 412 helicopters able to deliver over 4,000 gallons of fire suppression material per hour.
In addition to its 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. This season typically runs 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, thus giving them the ability to stay airborne and relatively close the scene of the wildfire for an extended period of time.
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 based at Van Nuys to augment its fleet of helicopters.
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 daily.
Calls can 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 large brush fires. Because of the vast distances involved the unit forward deploys a minimum of 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.
A snapshot of 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.
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.