Sunday, June 28, 2009

Orange County Fire: New Bell 412 Fire and Rescue Helicopters

Orange County Fire Authority's New Bell 412 Fire and Rescue Helicopters

Orange County Fire Authority Purchases Two New Bell 412 Helicopters

The Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) has taken delivery of two new Bell 412 Helicopters, replacing two 1966 Bell UH-1's, which the fire department acquired in 1995 through the Federal Excise Program. At a cost of $10.5 million each, these helicopters are the agency's first brand new firefighting aircraft.

According to Captain Dave Lopez, the Orange County Fire Authority's Air Operations Crew Chief, members of his fire department visited several other local agencies, including Los Angeles City, Los Angeles County and San Diego Fire-Rescue, to get a feel for how their firefighting helicopters were configured. With this information, they were able to create state-of-the-art specifications for their new units.

Dual Engines

One major safety difference between the two Bell 412's and their predecessors is that they have dual engines that are rated so that if one of them failed, the helicopter could still hover and complete aerial firefighting and rescue missions safely. The UH-1's were not able to do this, and according to Jim Davidson, an OCFA Helicopter Pilot, an engine failure would cause the aircraft to go down.

From a mechanic's point of view the dual engines do create some extra work, as John Wilson, a Senior Helicopter Maintenance Technician explains, "There are two engines, so it's a lot more work engine-wise. What's easy on one side is twice as hard on the other side because all of this stuff that is easy to get to here is on the inside of the aircraft and you can't get to it. So there's really just the engine and the gearbox back there that make up the big difference for this helicopter."

Night Vision Goggles

Another safety upgrade to the Bell 412's is that they have been equipped with a night vision goggle system. Like San Diego Fire-Rescue, Orange County Fire Authority is now able to perform night water drops during wildfire season and can also perform night rescues. Pilot Jim Davidson explains the important advantages of having this system in place, saying, "With the new aircraft, we've upgraded to night vision goggles, and it's turned night into day. So you have a smaller area to look at - it's a 40 degree circle to look at and it's only green and white - but you can see the definition of the trees and you can see the towers with the wires on it. And on a moonless night you have the ability to see the ground and fly and make landings and take-offs. We didn't have that capability before...with the goggles, five miles away, you can hold a cell phone and we can see it. Before we'd search for half an hour or an hour and not even find you."


The Bell 412's also have four rotors, while the UH-1's have only two. These rotors enable the pilots to handle wind conditions more stably. This is especially important in Orange County, where Santa Ana winds can be violent. Firefighters in Southern California are all too aware of the fact that Santa Ana winds are lead contributors to the spread of wildfires and at times make aerial firefighting difficult. Thus, the addition of the four-rotor helicopters is a welcome upgrade in an area where wildfires have been devastating in the past.

Avionics Equipment

The cockpits of the 412's have been outfitted with the newest innovations in avionics equipment. They have been configured so that the helicopters can serve as the command center for all aerial operations during a wildfire or rescue. Captain Lopez explains, "Some of the unique features are the Avalex Mapping System that allows us to have a moving map display in topographic maps, street maps, and flight maps. We can switch between them. We can do fire perimeter mapping with it. We can quickly pinpoint where it is we are going and what we are looking for." A Garmin GPS moving map system has also been tied into the traffic avoidance system showing the pilots where other aircraft are in relation to their ship.

Seating, Rescue Hoist and Belly Tanks

The seating in the Bell 412's can be configured for a multitude of missions. Captain Lopez says, "We can put a lot of seats in it to transport people. We can take out seats and put litter kits in it so we can transport up to six patients if need be for an emergency evacuation."

There have also been some aftermarket additions to the helicopters to make them ready for fire and rescue operations. A rescue hoist with 280 feet of cable which can be deployed at 260 feet per minute is mounted on the helicopters. A video camera has also been place over the hoist to record everything that happens during rescue operations. These videos can be downloaded for training purposes. Finally, a belly tank with a foam injection system has been mounted on both aircraft for water drops. These tanks hold 360 gallons of water and can be filled on the ground, or the helicopters can hover and fill up with a snorkel system in 45 seconds.

Both helicopters are now in service, and their predecessors will remain in the fleet to serve as back-up in the case of a large wildfire.

Related Video: To watch a video about San Diego Fire-Rescue's helicopters and their night vision goggle system, click here.
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