Aerial Firefighting with Night Vision Goggles – Part 2

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


Slate says NVG is a very good technology, even for over the city. “Nobody should be out flying at night without them,” he says. “You may see a big black area that could be a hill or a lake – you just can’t tell without NVG.”

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department

Equipped with two helicopters, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department (SDFD) deploys from Montgomery Field to the north of the city of San Diego. Their fleet consists of a Bell 212HP (Copter 1) and a newer Bell 412 (Copter 2), both capable of carrying up to 375 gallons of suppressant or retardant.

All three Southern California departments using NVG try to stay on the same page. “I’m on the FIRESCOPE committee, as is Chief Cruz [OCFA] and the guys at LA County, so when I look at my book and they look at their book, we’re all pretty darn close,” says SDFD Chief of Air Operations Perry Esquer. “We’re trying to make it as simple and as universal as we can from agency to agency.”

Although SDFD operates 24/7, things change after sunset. “We try to mirror night ops as closely as possible to those in the daytime,” explains Chief Esquer. “The caveat is that when we are flying at night, things slow way down.”

Fire Captain and Crew Chief Tom Stephenson believes the SDFD is pretty innovative. “We want to look at things as they come, but right now the program is still in its infancy,” he says. “We are doing something that is out of the norm, so we really want to be careful how we progress.”

Nevertheless, they still perform risky operations at night while following certain guidelines. They even do hoist rescues and medical transports on goggles. “I know other agencies don’t, but we feel it’s safer to operate in the dark on goggles,” says Chief Esquer. “We have some very strict parameters that we follow: if lives are threatened, structures are threatened, resources of significant economic value are threatened, excessively high suppression cost will be prevented, or if there is the potential for a large fire.”

Since the field of view with the goggles is 40° versus 200° [for unaided vision], the SFFD compensates by utilizing proper scanning techniques, according to Stephenson. “We also have the ability, when necessary, to look under the goggles at our controls and avionics,” he explains.

Like LA County, they’re picky about where they refill. “We don’t do hover fills from lakes at night because the vapor going through the light creates a white-out,” states Fire Helicopter Pilot Eric Connell. “Since the goggles are intensifying the light source by 5,000 times, it’s just not possible because you start to lose your visual reference.” He says it might be possible to do it over a pumpkin tank, but some spray will still come up. “In addition, you’re on your goggles, so the chin bubble [viewport in the lower nose of the aircraft] is blacked out, so your mirrors are blocked and you can’t see whether the snorkel is going in the tank,” he says.

Being prepared for night ops, even away from base, is also important. “We keep the goggles with the aircraft, so that if we happen to be out, we go right into NVG mode,” says Helicopter Rescue Medic Steve Vandewalle. “We fly with a ground-fill whip, so that if we’re out, we can land and ask an engine crew where their 2 ½” is [in order to fill the aircraft’s tank with water from the fire engine’s hose].”

The Future of NVG

Now that we’ve seen what current technology is used by fire agencies, what about the future? The military is experimenting with Generation 4 NVG and with Panoramic NVG, which incorporates four vision tubes instead of the standard two tubes, broadening the pilot’s view from 40° up to 95°.

In firefighting, some work done by Dennis Hulbert in conjunction with Coulson Aircrane bears watching. They are experimenting with using a laser designator and Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) to guide a firefighting helicopter, in this case an S-61, to an invisible hot spot where the suppressant drop is required. The S-61 pilot, who is wearing Generation 3 NVG, is able to see the laser dot.