California: dispute with union prevents Orange County helicopters from being used at night

Sixteen months ago the Orange County Fire Authority made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to fight fire. They even purchased $25 million worth of helicopters specially outfitted for night flying, but a dispute with their pilots’ union has kept them grounded at night.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Orange County Register:

The Orange County Fire Authority has spent nearly $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training, but months later, the agency’s helicopters remain grounded after the sun goes down as union officials and department management grapple over the technicalities of the program.

Sixteen months after the decision to order the night-vision technology, the equipment is ready. The helicopter crews are trained. But they remain tucked in at night in the midst of fire season.

Both sides are not divulging the reasons for the holdup, a benefit of confidential talks on how to implement the program and accommodate new working conditions. While the department wants to implement the night-vision technology as soon as possible, nothing can be done until the two sides can agree, said Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion. No one knows when that will be.

“We are meeting in earnest with the union and attempting to address their concerns as quickly as we can so we can start taking advantage of the additional capabilities of our helicopters,” Concepcion said.

“Flying at night has inherent risks above and beyond what occurs during the day,” said Ray Geagan, vice president of the agency’s union, the Orange County Professional Firefighters. “When our members are in harm’s way, we want to look at it as closely as possible.”

Days after the Freeway Complex fire ripped through Yorba Linda and Brea, destroying hundreds of homes last November, then-Fire Authority Chief Chip Prather raved about the night-vision goggles after testing them on a ride though local canyons. It turned night into day, he said.

Saving lives and property was why the agency fast-tracked spending $25million last April to buy two new twin-engine helicopters with night-flying capabilities. A month later, the agency’s board of directors gave the nod for spending $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training.

Eager to get a jump on training while waiting for the new helicopters to be built, mechanics retrofitted one of the agency’s 1966 Super Huey helicopters last October to give the authority’s three pilots a chance to practice night vision.

The first of the new Bell 412s with night-vision capability rolled off the assembly line as scheduled in December. The second followed two months later. The new Bell 412s, according to the agency’s 2008 annual report, give the department an “enhanced platform for reconnaissance, rescue, medical transport, and fire fighting. With advanced avionics, a digital mapping system and night vision goggle capability, the OCFA has entered a new era of ‘providing protection from above.'”


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.