In our second installment of this series on Night Vision Goggles (NVG), three fire departments that operate aircraft while using NVG weigh in on the benefits and dangers of night operations.
Los Angeles County Fire Department
The agency that has been using NVG the longest, Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD), has NVG-equipped crews located 24/7 in three distant corners of the county. Bunk facilities allow these crews to rest between calls, but once a call comes in, they are required to be airborne quickly. With a stable of nine firefighting aircraft, including three Firehawks (the firefighting version of the military’s UH-60 Blackhawk); they are also the largest air operation flying fires at night.
In 1995, senior pilots Tony Moreno and Tom Short were flying with just spotlights [no NVG] and had wires to worry about. So, when they got the goggles, they were amazed! They soon converted all their Bell 412s and two of their S-70s, which came with NVG-compatible lighting.
“We completed our initial training here in April of 2001 and we started flying on the goggles,” says Short. “We didn’t initially go and fight fires at night, because we needed to get comfortable with the new goggles while performing routine night SAR [Search and Rescue] and HEMS [Helicopter Emergency Medical Services] missions.” When the Fire Siege of 2003 started, they still didn’t have a dedicated ‘night operations’ period.
More familiarity with NVG, and political pressure from the constituency, caused them to venture into the fire business around 2005. “The first fire I went on with the goggles was up near Palmdale in the foothills,” recalls Short. “During that night operation, another fire broke out in the Quartz Hill area. We sent two copters and they were able to knock the fire down before the first ground units got there.”
The Generation 3 goggles have also evolved. “We started with the Omnis and now we’re using the Pinnacles, which is just another evolution of the ANVIS 9 tube,” explains Short. “The automatic brightness control is much better, so I can look at a brightly lit area and the whole tube doesn’t shut down, just a portion of it.”
Refilling a helo’s water tanks can also be a challenge. “We determined early on that snorkeling at night was not a good idea,” says Short. “When you’re hovering over a water source with the goggles on at night, you have water spray on windscreen and if you get a mix of dust in the rotor wash, you get mud on your windscreen, so your visibility and depth perception start to deteriorate. We decided that this was not a safe way to do things.”
Moreno says their mission is to save a lot of homes and a lot of money. “It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we could drop water or foam on structures to put out fires, or to pre-treat structures ahead of fires,” he explains.
Unfortunately, there are additional, uncalled for, hazards. “It seems like there’s always someone out there who wants to play ‘laser the copter’ [by pointing lasers directly at the pilots],” says Short. “You’ve got to have a plan – closing one eye, turning away from the light source or doing something immediately to protect your vision, because if you’re not prepared to react, you’re going to be blinded for who knows how long.”
Orange County Fire Authority
The newest kid on the NVG block, Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) currently flies two Bell 412 aircraft, and has two older UH-1 helicopters in reserve. They operate out of Fullerton Municipal Airport in the northwest corner of the county. They don’t operate on a 24-hour basis as of yet, but hope to in the future.
Although being nearsighted is usually a problem for people, it can be an advantage with NVG, according to Karim Slate, Special Operations Section Pilot with OCFA. “If you’re nearsighted, you often don’t need to wear glasses when using the goggles,” he explains. “If you’re farsighted, you still have to wear your glasses.”