Orange County plans to upgrade helicopter fleet

And, background on how the helicopter crews for Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Fire Authority have divided the responsibilities for rescues

Orange County Fire Authority flight crews
Orange County Fire Authority flight crews: L to R: Joey Heaslet, Danny Moorhouse, Jason Trevino, Desiree Horton, & Robert Bucho.

When Desiree Horton was hired by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection in 2013 she became, as far as we know, the only female firefighting helicopter pilot working for a government agency. Her first posting with CAL FIRE was at Kneeland, a very small community in the northwest corner of the state about 10 air miles east of Eureka. At first she was living in the back seat of her pickup truck and later upgraded to a camper she put on the back. She would work for seven days then make the 12-hour drive back to Southern California.

Desiree Horton, Fire Pilot
Desiree Horton, Fire Pilot for the Orange County Fire Authority.

The next year she transferred to the helicopter base at Prado east of Los Angeles, making it possible to sleep in her own bed every night. She expected to retire there but when an opportunity with the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) in Southern California became available she couldn’t turn it down.

“When this opportunity presented itself it was a really tough decision,” she said. “Walking away from the growth that CAL FIRE was offering and the expansion of the department with the new ‘Hawks — it was a tough choice.” She said she likes the diversity of the mission in Orange County, including the rescues that are not as common with CAL FIRE.

CAL FIRE has started replacing their UH-1H Super Hueys with Sikorsky Firehawks. One or two of them have been physically delivered from Sikorsky and the after-market conversion company United Rotorcraft, but none have been officially accepted from the contractors yet.

If you are having trouble playing the video, you can view it at YouTube.

The OCFA helicopter fleet

The OCFA has four helicopters, two military surplus UH-1Hs and two Bell 412EPs based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California. They both can carry up to about 360 gallons of water but are limited to around 200 gallons if the fuel tank is close to full.

Orange County Fire Authority helicopters
Orange County Fire Authority, helicopters 1 and 4

In July of last year the OCFA received a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison for Coulson Aviation to supply two helicopters that were based at Fullerton Airport. One of the ships was an S-61 with a collapsable external tank capable of night flying and hover-refilling at night. The second helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76 that worked with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. The two helicopters were staffed 24/7 and available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Night flying

In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to perform rescues and fight fire. They spent $25 million to purchase two Bell 412 helicopters specially outfitted for night flying, but a dispute with their pilots’ union grounded them at night. The agency spent $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training, but union officials and department management grappled over the technicalities of the program.

But fast-forward to 2015 and the agency had four helicopters equipped for night flying and began a six-month pilot program in which helicopters rotated 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.

Pilot Joey Heaslet said most of their flight training now is conducted at night, explaining that if you can perform a task well at night it’s even easier in daylight.

Chief Brian Fennessy

Brian Fennessy, Chief of Orange County Fire Authority
Brian Fennessy, Chief of Orange County Fire Authority

Brian Fennessy was the Chief of the San Diego Fire Department before he became OCFA Fire Chief in March of 2018. He said the UH-1Hs built in 1966 are showing their age, are challenging to maintain, and parts are becoming difficult to find —  the same issues that were identified by CAL FIRE when they made the decision to replace their Super Hueys with Firehawks. The Bell 412EPs were manufactured in 2008.

Orange County Fire Authority helicopters
Orange County Fire Authority, Helicopter 3, a UH-1H

“All four of our aircraft need to be replaced,” said the Chief who has served as Air Operations Branch Director on Incident Management Teams.

As part of the process of evaluating what the agency’s next step is after retiring the Hueys, he talked with several vendors last week at the HAI HELI-EXPO a few miles from OCFA’s headquarters. There were over 60 helicopters inside the Anaheim Convention Center and about 700 exhibitors.

That evaluation process also includes a Fleet Replacement Analysis by an aviation consultant, Conklin & de Decker Associates, an organization that completed a similar study for San Diego in 2017 when Chief Fennessy was the chief there. After that study and one for Los Angeles County Fire Department in 2000 both departments purchased Sikorsky S-70i Firehawks.

The Chief said the study for OCFA has been underway for about a year and a half and he believes it is nearing completion.

Below is a table from the Conklin & de Decker study for the San Diego FD, comparing five models of helicopters:

Conklin & de Decker helicopter study
An excerpt from the study conducted by for the San Diego Fire Department in 2017.

Real-time fire mapping

Another program Orange County was involved in last year was  a 150-day pilot program that makes real time fire mapping available to firefighters on the ground. The Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling. Chief Fennessy began exploring this technology when he was in San Diego. It became real when implemented September 1, 2019 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

Using FIRIS, heat from the fire is detected by sensors on the plane where a technician interprets the imagery and manually draws a line around the perimeter. A map is then sent through WhatsApp to cell phones of firefighters on the ground. Within about three minutes a super computer in San Diego can add a projection of the anticipated spread of the fire.

This equipment could be a major step toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when the exact location of one or both of these critical aspects of situational awareness were unknown. Examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.

Conflicts between aviation units of OCFA and the Sheriff’s office

The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has five helicopters, AS350s used for patrol and UH-1Hs with hoists for rescue.

According to the Orange County Register, in 2017 Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens decided to unilaterally take over helicopter rescue operations in the county’s remote areas. Until then the Sheriff Department’s air fleet had taken the lead for searches, while the Orange County Fire Authority handled rescues. During parts of 2017 and 2018 helicopters from both agencies were appearing over the same incident potentially causing airspace conflicts and confusion. At times the pilots of the Sheriff’s helicopters ignored orders from Incident Commanders to stand down. According to the Orange County Register conflicts occurred twice on April 29, 2017. In a recording of the radio traffic a Laguna Beach dispatcher told a fire official “It sounds like the sheriffs have gone rogue. They’re not listening to the (Incident Commander).”

The interagency battle escalated to the point where the 2017-2018 Orange County grand jury launched an investigation. Their report listed a number of recommendations including having the Sheriff Department helicopters move from John Wayne Airport to co-locate with the Fire Authority at Fullerton Airport where there is unused hangar space owned by the county. The report stated, “Colocating allows public aviation units to leverage each other’s resources, gain economies of scale in maintenance and training, and encourages use of best practices.”

Carrie Braun, Director of Public Affairs and Community Engagement for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said they have discussed co-locating with the Fire Authority and those talks are ongoing.

The grand jury report includes a copy of a July, 2017 Memorandum of Agreement drafted to establish responsibilities, frequencies, and procedures for incidents where more than one helicopter is at the scene. There were several interagency meetings held to work out the details. OCFA was invited to participate, but attended only one meeting and was the only air support unit not to sign the MOU. The document has signatures for representatives of the Sheriff’s office, Highway Patrol, and two local cities, but the line for the Fire Authority’s signature is blank.

On January 27, 2020 I asked Chief Fennessy about the issue:

“That was a very ugly chapter I think in both ours and the Sheriff’s history. When I came here [in March, 2018] that was pretty embarrassing… When I was named to be the Chief the very first thing I did before I even showed up for my first day at work was I met with Sheriff Hutchens… She wanted this thing to be behind her too… Let’s tell everybody this is how we’re going to behave and this is how it’s going to work and be done with this. And literally within days if not weeks of my arrival here, not just because of me but because of the willingness on the Sheriff’s side, we made a few necessary changes within our organizations and it ended.”

“We send three helicopters generally in the summer on the report of a fire,” the Chief said, “two of ours and one of their’s. They’ve got aircraft that are capable of dropping water, why wouldn’t we? If we need to put a spotter up, a HLCO [Helicopter Coordinator], they make one of their helicopters available.”

The solution they came up with is to split the responsibility for rescues. The Sheriff’s ships respond on weekends, Friday through Sunday, and OCFA takes Monday through Thursday plus, using their night flying capability, OCFA handles all fires and rescues at night.

Ms. Braun of the Sheriff’s Department said talking points their agency prepared for an August, 2018 press conference in which Sheriff Hutchens and Chief Fennessy discussed the resolution of the helicopter response responsibilities indicate that that the Sheriff thanked the Chief for his leadership and collaboration, and felt that, “Back in January, I wasn’t sure we would be standing here today. We had tried to mediate the situation and had come to an impasse. From the moment Chief Fennessy entered the conversation, bridges were being built.”

ABC News features southern California helicopter pilot

Desiree Horton
Desiree Horton. Screenshot from ABC video.

ABC News has a three-minute video report on the only full time firefighting helicopter pilot employed by a government agency in California. In addition to working for Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) where is is now, she previously flew helicopters for CAL FIRE, a privately owned helicopter company with a firefighting contract, a  heavy lift operator, a helicopter tour company in Hawaii, and TV stations in Los Angeles.

The video below appears to have been produced before Desiree started working at the OCFA.

More articles about Desiree are on Fire Aviation and Wildfire Today.

Orange County begins trial of real time mapping technology

The project is funded by the State of California

This article was first published at Wildfire Today

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
An example of the technician’s screen when using the FIRIS system. Screenshot from the video below.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority began a 150-day pilot program that could lead to real time fire mapping being available to firefighters on the ground. Not knowing exactly where a fire is has been a factor in more than two dozen firefighter fatalities in recent decades. Smoke, terrain, and darkness can obstruct the view of fire crews and supervisors which can severely compromise their situational awareness.

The 150-day Fire Integrated Real-Time Intelligence System (FIRIS) pilot program got off the ground September 1 thanks to funding secured in the 2019-2020 California state budget by Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach).

“The State of California must shift strategies to address the constant crisis of wildfires – this is no longer a seasonal threat,” stated Assemblywoman Petrie-Norris. “I am proud to have partnered with the Orange County Fire Authority in securing $4.5 million in state funds for technology that will protect lives and property by giving first responders better, stronger tools to use against the threat of wildfires.”

The system utilizes a fixed-wing aircraft equipped with infrared and radar sensors that can see through smoke. The plane provides real-time fire perimeter mapping and live high definition video to support supercomputer-based wildfire predictive spread modeling.

FIRIS fire wildfire mapping real time
Screenshot of aircraft featured in the FIRIS B-Roll video.

A supercomputer at the University of California San Diego will run fire spread projections based on fire perimeter data collected by the aircraft. The output will estimate where the fire will be in the next six hours. The fire spread model will adjust for successful fire suppression actions by firefighters on the ground and in the air. This intel allows for more timely and accurate decision making for resource allocation and evacuations.

“The ability to place resources exactly where they need to be to successfully battle a wildfire can mean the difference between lives and property saved or lost”, said Orange County Fire Authority Fire Chief Brian Fennessy. “Technology is becoming increasingly important as we work to suppress wildfires quickly. We’re hopeful this pilot program may someday become a routine asset statewide.”

For decision-makers on the ground, a common operating picture increases situational awareness. Firefighters on the front line, incident commanders, law enforcement, and regional and state emergency operation centers all could have the ability to see the same fire intel on a smartphone, tablet or computer in real-time. Fire perimeter maps and live video feeds are provided through an electronic network to assist decision-makers.

This is another step toward the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety which would ultimately provide to fire supervisors the real time location of a fire and the location of firefighting personnel and equipment.

The video below is “B-Roll, that is, unedited footage. The first 6.5 minutes are simply images of aircraft, but after that you will be able to look over the shoulder of the imagery technician as he observes infrared imagery of a fire, manually interprets the heat signatures, then traces the fire perimeter on the screen. That perimeter could then be electronically sent to the super computer in San Diego County which would run a fire spread model to predict what the fire will do in the next six hours.

Orange County begins trial of night-flying, hover-filling helicopter

night-flying helicopter Australia
The S-61 snorkels from a dip tank in phase 2 of the night-flying trial in Australia. February, 2018. Coulson photo.

This month the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) is beginning a trial of a night-flying firefighting helicopter that can refill its collapsable external water tank while hovering. Thanks to a $4 million grant from Southern California Edison the OCFA has awarded a 150-day contract to Coulson Aviation for two helicopters that will be based at the Fullerton Municipal Airport northwest of Anaheim, California (map).

The one that will be most visible is an S-61 that can carry up to 1,000 gallons of water. As demonstrated during the recent bushfire season in Australia the Coulson helicopter can hover over a water tank at night and use a hose to refill the tank. Night-flying helicopters have been used in the United States since the 1970s to fight fires, but until a few months ago they always had to land to reload, with firefighters on the ground dragging hose, connecting it, pumping water into the tank, disconnecting, and moving out of the way as the helicopter takes off. Hover refilling is more time-efficient.

Firefighting at night can be more effective, since usually winds subside, relative humidity increases, and temperatures decrease, resulting in lower intensity and rates of spread.

Coulson's Sikorsky S-76
Coulson’s Sikorsky S-76, Helicopter 347, at Sacramento, March 20, 2014. Since then, the livery has changed. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The second helicopter that is part of the trial is a Sikorsky S-76 that will work with the S-61 to provide intelligence, evaluate effectiveness, and identify targets with a laser designator. In Australia the S-76 orbited approximately 1,000 feet above the S-61 and used a GPS controlled illuminated laser pointer to inform the water dropping helicopter where to drop the loads. The S-61 is fitted with night vision goggles but also has twin adjustable Night Suns on the landing gear along with the helicopter searchlights.

The two helicopters will be staffed 24/7 and will be available to all regions serviced by Southern California Edison including Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

Orange County’s regular helicopter fleet consists of two Super Hueys and two Bell 412ep ships, and has been using night-flying helicopters for years.

The video below shows an Orange County night-flying drill, uploaded to Vimeo July 8, 2019.

After 40 meetings two southern California agencies still battle over aviation responsibilities

The Orange County Fire Authority and the County Sheriff’s office sometimes both send helicopters to the same rescue incidents

Orange County Fire Authority helicopters
Orange County Fire Authority helicopters. OCFA photo.

For almost a year the Orange County Sheriff’s office and the Orange County Fire Authority have battled over which agency has the responsibility for providing helicopters for rescue incidents in the Southern California county. Occasionally helicopters from both agencies show up at a scene when only one is needed, creating safety issues when neither one wants to back down. We first wrote about this situation May 6, 2017.

And it has gotten worse, according to an article in the Orange County Register. Below is an excerpt:

The battles over which agency should conduct air rescues in Orange County have become so frequent and so dangerous that county supervisors decided Tuesday to refer the problem to a state agency in the hope it can help settle a dispute.

The board’s direction came after Orange County Fire Authority Chief Patrick McIntosh told supervisors his pilots would continue responding to air rescue calls and ignore Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ recent decision to unilaterally take over helicopter rescue operations in the county’s remote areas.

Hutchens’ announcement Jan. 16 formally ended a prior agreement that named Orange County Fire Authority as the county’s primary responder. It also came after two years during which pilots from the Sheriff’s Department and the fire authority have regularly clashed, with helicopters from both agencies racing to rescue scenes on dozens of calls, at times arguing over radio and face-to-face after flying in the same airspace.

Sheriff and Fire Departments in Orange County feud over helicopter responses

Orange County Fire Authority helicopter

Above: file photo of firefighter with Orange County Fire Authority helicopter. OCFA photo.

In an air battle over the responsibility for helicopter rescues in Orange County, California the losers are the taxpayers and accident victims.

Historically the County Sheriff’s Department air fleet has taken the lead for searches, while the Orange County Fire Authority has handled rescues. Recently, however, the Sheriff has been poaching responses to rescues resulting in multiple helicopters appearing over the same incident potentially causing airspace conflicts and confusion.

According to the Orange County Register it happened twice on April 29, with the Sheriff’s helicopter being told repeatedly by the Incident Commander they were not requested and then ignoring orders to “stand down”.

Below is an excerpt from their article:

…Recordings from radio chatter on Saturday show sheriff pilots ignoring direct orders from local commanders.

In Orange, the commander on the ground told the sheriff pilot, “You will abide by what the ground (Incident Commander) is asking you to do.”

The sheriff helicopter completed the medical assistance call anyway.

“My concern is if you have four aircraft in the air, and the sheriff refuses to communicate, who will get hurt if there is an air accident?” said Orange City Fire Dept. Deputy Chief Robert Stefano.

In Laguna Beach, where an intoxicated 17-year-old was pulled from a beach cove, the commander told the Sheriff’s pilot, “You are not requested.” The Laguna official also declared that the Sheriff’s pilot was creating “an unsafe air operation” by not answering direct orders.

In another recording of the same incident, a Laguna Beach dispatcher told a fire official “It sounds like the sheriffs have gone rogue. They’re not listening to the (Incident Commander).”

It is absurd that emergency management professionals operating very expensive aircraft cannot act like adults and do what is best for the taxpayers, citizens, and accident victims who need the best medical care available administered in a safe environment.

The Orange County Register has a recording of the radio conversations that is astounding.

Orange County helicopters ready for night flying

The Orange County Fire Authority now has four helicopters ready to operate at night. Beginning in March, the southern California agency began a six-month pilot program in which their four helicopters rotate 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.

In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to fight fire. They even purchased $25 million worth of helicopters specially outfitted for night flying, but a dispute with their pilots’ union grounded them at night. The agency spent $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training, but union officials and department management grappled over the technicalities of the program.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Orange County Register:

…The benefit of night flights was shown on Sept. 4, 2010, when the fire authority sent a helicopter into a nighttime blaze for the first time. The crew made 12 water drops, and helped contain a 10-acre fire in less than three hours. The flight crew was in the parking lot on its way home when they got the a call around 7:56 p.m. for assistance.

The [six-month trial program] comes six years after an independent auditor recommended the fire authority could improve after the 2007 Santiago Fire that scorched more than 28,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes in Orange County.

Because of budgetary and safety concerns, round-the-clock air operations took a back seat to other issues in the six years since adopting night-vision technology, said Gene Hernandez, vice chairman of the Fire Authority’s board of directors.

“There was significant changes occurring in the organization that we needed to address, and this wasn’t a front-burner issue,” Hernandez said, citing budget cuts at the time.

The extra coverage allows the fire agency to respond to the 25 percent of calls for air assistance that used to fall outside the previous 12-hour duty day, according to a staff report. Last year, the agency’s helicopters responded to 196 calls total.

The helicopters sometimes still flew at night, but only when on-call crews responded back to work.

Under the new program, one aircraft will be staffed with a pilot and crew chief, with a firefighter/paramedic rescuer added on the weekends, at an annual cost of $1.5 million.