Night-flying helicopters more readily available to county

Night-flying helicopters more readily available to county
The night helicopters aren’t used often, San Diego Fire Rescue Chief of Air Operations Chris Heiser said, but they are now available for easier access to the entire county. Courtesy photo

REGION— Officials from the City of San Diego have partnered with the county to offer two helicopters with night flying capabilities for use throughout the county, including the 17 unincorporated areas.

The city’s Bell 212 and Bell 412EP are the only firefighting and rescue helicopters in the city that can fly at night.

“The new city-county partnership to extend night flights to all corners of our region is great news for residents and builds on our efforts to bolster fire protection,” San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob said.

The agreement between the city and county has been in effect since Dec. 1 and is good through June 30, 2016 with the option of a five-year extension.

The city will respond to requests from the county and local agencies to provide use of the night flying helicopters, when available.  The county will reimburse the city for use and staff hours.

The Bell 212 costs about $3,700 an hour to fly and the Bell 412EP costs about $5,000 an hour.

“Expanding access to night-flying helicopters is our newest tool to protect residents and keep our region on the cutting edge of public safety,” said County Supervisor Ron Roberts. “This agreement worked out with Mayor Faulconer is the latest example of how the county and the city of San Diego are working tirelessly and cooperatively to improve emergency response capabilities before disaster strikes.”

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer agreed.

“When a wildfire comes we have to be focused on results and saving lives, not jurisdictional boundaries drawn on a map,” Faulconer said. “That’s why the city and county are embarking on a new level of cooperation to make sure our region is as prepared as possible for whatever comes our way.”

Since 2003, the county has spent more than $317 million on improvements towards fire fighting, including developmental training for staff, a regional emergency app and technology improvements.

According to San Diego Fire Rescue Chief of Air Operations Chris Heiser, the same staff will still be used on the helicopters, which are equipped with night vision goggles.

It takes almost as long as regular training to train a firefighter to use the night helicopters, Chief Heiser said.

The helicopters can do all of the same rescue and firefighting missions, including aerial firefighting, reconnaissance missions and hoist operations, according to Heiser.

“We have to do a complete duplication of all our training in that night environment using the night vision goggle system and the coordination it takes to effectively do those operations,” Heiser said.

He said that the agreement doesn’t change much, since the county already had access to the helicopters but it does provide a mechanism for reimbursement

“In one sense, it’s nothing that we weren’t already doing. This just really provides the structure that allows for reimbursement and also helps facilitate a rapid response to the resource outside of the city,” Heiser said.

Carlsbad Fire Chief Mike Davis said it’s difficult in Carlsbad to use the helicopters for aerial firefighting because of all the power lines from the Encina Power Station but, he said, they will help in night rescues.

“We use them to rescue hikers, mountain bikers and people on the cliffs and being able to do that at night safely is an unbelievable addition to service,” said Davis.

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