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Into the Bright Night: NVGs Help Fight California Fires

Posted 9 years 258 days ago ago by Admin


For years it was said that night helicopter firefighting had great potential, if there was proper equipment. Today, improved night vision goggles (NVGs) have helped realize that potential by reducing risk and increasing effectiveness. Of course, reduced risk doesn’t mean no risk; there’s still plenty to be concerned about after the sun sets. That is why specific criteria must be met before launching into the night. First, there needs to be a direct threat to life or significant property. Second, it must be believed that flying at night will substantially support ground firefighting efforts as the expected benefits need to outweigh the real risks.

In Southern California, these criteria are often met. Since 2009, regional counties and the United States Forest Service (USFS) have engaged in joint nighttime firefighting training, using NVGs to prepare for the inevitable. This has led to more crews being better prepared to coordinate their efforts at all hours against spreading flames.

Rotorcraft Pro was allowed an inside look at the 2014 training event. The Kern County Fire Department was this year’s designated host and most of the action occurred in the terrain of the Tehachapi Mountains. In addition to Kern County, other air operation sections participating were from the Orange County Fire Authority, Los Angeles City Fire Department, Los Angeles County Fire Department, and the Ventura County Fire and Sheriff’s Aviation Division. In addition, the USFS had a Bell Super 205 and a Turbo Commander 690 air attack fixed-wing on the scene. Ground crews in the drill were from Kern, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles counties.

The original intent of these annual drills was to demonstrate that crews from different agencies could work together safely and efficiently at night while conducting helicopter fire suppression operations. Over the years, the participants have developed their skills. So this year another element was added: real fire. Kern County pilot Scott Beck explains, “With the proper mitigations in place, we felt we could create a safe environment that adequately tested both the aircrew and ground firefighter’s ability to interoperate effectively at night utilizing multiple helicopters.”

Drill objectives

The five objectives of this year’s drill were to:

1) exercise Kern County’s ability to activate a local Type 3 Incident Management Team and successfully conduct the drill under the Incident Command System (ICS) utilizing Firescope guidelines. (ICS is a national standard for managing emergency operations.  Firescope is a state organization created to develop standards for all-risk emergency operations, in relation to this article, the Night Flying Guidelines.)

2) provide an organized opportunity for NVG aircrews to safely conduct water-dropping operations at night.

3) safely and effectively operate a nighttime, water-loading helispot for multiple aircraft from different agencies.

4) provide organized training opportunities for ground personnel to understand the capabilities of helicopters and how they can benefit ground efforts.

5) keep the training fire within the containment lines.

Cooperative weather, a supportive community, and the coordinated efforts of over 300 personnel resulted in all objectives being met. Different agencies were able to network and learn about each other’s aircraft and procedures. The six-acre fire added to the challenge—and realism—of the exercise. With lessons learned, plans are being made to incorporate improvements into next year’s event.

Participants and observers were especially positive about training points incorporated throughout the drill. Orange County Lead Pilot Jeff Carlson was among those with praise. “The yearly training with other agencies has definitely made things safer and much more efficient. Having the radio communication and firefighting procedures understood by all, only helps us all. Since we see fires decrease in intensity during the overnight hours, being able to do helicopter water drops is critical. The introduction of night vision goggle technology has without doubt enhanced our night firefighting and rescue capabilities.”

NVGs serve and save

Kern County started using NVGs in 2006 to perform night hoist operations. The next year they were used on a small fire. These days, NVG hoist training takes place monthly; night water-drop training happens at least quarterly. This latter exercise includes loading helicopter belly tanks at designated spots and snorkel filling from local lakes. The lakes are always first surveyed in daylight for potential underwater obstructions.

All of this regional and county training has one ultimate goal—to serve. As too often happens in Southern California, the opportunity to render that service occurred just eight days after the joint drills. The Shirley Fire, a fast moving wildfire at Lake Isabella, started on federal land. By the fire’s second evening, structure threat to the community of Wofford Heights was imminent. Both of Kern County’s rotorcraft were requested and flown in support of ground efforts. Seven hours of water-dropping operations over two nights successfully assisted to mitigate the threat.  

Pilot Beck sums it up nicely. "We are responsible to provide the citizens of Kern County the ability to perform rescue and firefighting coverage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  As professionals, we seek to utilize the best tools for the services we provide.  NVG use is essential to our mission.  As far as the Kern County Fire Department is concerned, it's a true game changer."

Yes, NVGs have been a big change for the better.

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