The Santa Barbara County supervisors voted 5-0 to approve the submission of a competitive bid for the fire department to purchase a Blackhawk helicopter from the National Guard.
Currently the agency operates two Bell OH-58A+ helicopters used primarily for law enforcement operations. These aircraft are equipped with multi-agency communications radios, Forward Looking InfraRed technology, powerful searchlights, LoJack stolen vehicle tracking equipment, photo and video equipment, and mapping technology.
The department also operates three Rescue/Firefighting aircraft: two Bell UH-1H Hueys and a Bell UH-1N twin-engine Huey. All three Huey Aircraft are equipped with rescue hoists, capable of lowering rescue personnel into remote or otherwise inaccessible locations and extricating lost or injured persons who could not be rescued by conventional means. All of the Huey aircraft are also capable of fire suppression missions using either fixed water tanks or removable long-line buckets.
Below is an excerpt from an article in the Santa Ynez Valley News:
Interim Fire Chief Michael Dyer said the Blackhawk helicopter will cost less than $1.73 million, noting Cal Fire just purchased two new Black Hawks for between $20 million and $25 million each. He said there will be some additional costs to remove military-specific equipment from the Black Hawk and install the gear necessary to turn it into a Firehawk aerial firefighting unit. The annual operation and maintenance costs also will be higher than the choppers the county currently operates.
County Fire’s Hueys fly at 120 knots and carry 360 gallons of water, but the Firehawk will fly at 190 knots and carry 1,000 gallons of water, which can be released as a full load or in three separate loads. It can also carry twice as many personnel, Dyer said.
In addition to the $1.7 million purchase price of the Blackhawk, the additional costs of retrofitting and maintenance will bring the total up to about $4.7 million. The most costly task will be the installation of the 1,000-gallon water tank including extending the landing gear, raising the aircraft to make room for the tank.
The helicopter they hope to purchase has been used as an air ambulance by the National Guard. It has about 3,200 hours on it and was built in 2002.
One of the Hueys now operated by the department flew in the Vietnam War and is 51 years old. Parts are becoming difficult to find for the helicopter fleet, with all of them being previously owned and retired by the military.
Two of the district supervisors stated that the fire department needs to develop a long range strategic plan for managing and funding the helicopter fleet.