This year’s Igor Sikorsky Humanitarian Award goes not to an individual, but to an organization that celebrated a special milestone last year. In 1957, the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACFD) acquired its first helicopter, a Bell 47 G-2. From that humble beginning the department’s Air Operations Section has grown into one of the nation’s largest helicopter firefighting units, currently operating a fleet of six Bell 412s and three Sikorsky S-70 Firehawks. Over the past 50 years, the section has fought countless fires and performed crucial rescue operations, thus fulfilling the Sikorsky award mandate of demonstrating the value of civilian rotorcraft to society, saving lives, protecting property and aiding those in distress. Last year, the Air Ops Section fought 387 fires, performed 1,165 rescues and transported nearly 16,000 passengers.
“It’s an honor to receive the Igor Sikorsky Humanitarian Award,” said Battalion Chief Anthony Marrone, head of the L.A. County Fire Department’s Air Operations Section. “Igor Sikorsky was one of the fathers of helicopter development and had a vision of the helicopter as a rescue tool. I think we’re one of the operators that best shows how to use helicopters in his vision–to rescue people and to put out fires–it’s a completely humanitarian mission that we have.”
Encompassing more than 4,000 sq mi, Los Angeles County is one of the nation’s largest, and is home to more than 11 million people. The county is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the Angeles National Forest and San Gabriel Mountains to the north. The varied geography has forced the LACFD to adopt a wide range of tasks. “We are a multi-mission operation in that we do EMS transport of ill and injured people to specialty trauma centers, we do search and rescue with hoists, we do firefighting crew haul, we do wildlands firefighting, we have open-ocean rescue, we have swift-water rescue when people get caught in flood control channels or in rivers, we fly into the mountains at night [and] we protect Catalina and San Clemente islands,” said Marrone.
The air section’s more traditional efforts revolve around firefighting, and the department has been one of the pioneers in the use of helicopters to combat wildland blazes. Los Angeles County has been in a drought cycle for the past six years, which has made the fire season a year-round event. The water drop tanks on the department’s fleet are never removed, so the fleet is ready for instant deployment. “We have a huge urban-wildland interface and brush fires are going to impact lives and property immediately or within the first couple of hours,” said Marrone.
Last year proved a busy one for the department and the Air Ops section, and Marrone recalls the blazes, ticking them off the way a veteran soldier lists his campaigns. “Our fire season began very early last year with the Griffith Park fire, the Hollywood Sign fire, a brush fire in Beverly Hills and then we moved right into the Catalina Island fire…We ended up having the October fire siege, where we had about 20 fires in the Southern California area, and then in November we had the Corral fire–the last big fire in Malibu, a 4,700-acre brush fire that burned down 52 structures,” he said. The Malibu fire was the worst in that area since 1993, when a blaze there destroyed more than 400 homes. Marrone credited the increase in the section’s helicopter fleet size and the new capabilities brought by the S-70 Firehawk as crucial factors in helping lessen the damage this time.
The LACFD was one of the early leaders in the development and use of aerial water drop tanks. Currently, its Bell 412s can carry 350 gallons of water per flight, while the Sikorsky Firehawks can each carry 1,000 gallons. In addition, the S-70s also feature a retractable snorkel that can refill the tank while hovering over a water source. In the past, the department has used the swimming pools that dot the Los Angeles landscape to refill the tanks.
EMS Transport Role
Because the LACFD handles various tasks, its helicopters must be ready to switch from one to another. “I was on a rescue out in the desert,” Marrone said. “We picked up a kid and took him to Children’s Hospital downtown near Hollywood. As we left the helipad flying back toward the base, I looked up and saw smoke over by the Hollywood sign. We flew over, called dispatch, told them we were over the Hollywood reservoir, were going to start water dropping operations and notified the city.”
While firefighting is the more glamorous and visible task, emergency medical transport is the section’s more common duty. The LACFD handles 75 percent of the EMS transports in Los Angeles County.
Marrone credited all the members of his unit for their dedication and sense of duty. “The strength of our air operation section comes from the entire team of pilots, mechanics, crewmembers and our support staff. It’s not any one group. It’s all of the groups coming together for a common mission that make us what we are. It’s not any one mission that we do that makes us famous or makes us noteworthy, it’s the fact that we do all of the missions for free everyday, 24 hours a day. It is a purely humanitarian calling for us,” he said.
The air operations section has earned an enviable safety record that senior pilot Tony Moreno attributes to the department’s rigorous qualification requirements. “We have experienced pilots. They must have a minimum of 4,000 hours flight time in
helicopters [including 1,500 hours operating in pressure altitudes above 4,000 feet] before they can even apply for a job, and all of our pilots generally have over 7,000 hours when they come on board. Many of them have more than that.”
Moreno has flown for the LACFD for 26 years and said the average among the other pilots in the section is in the neighborhood of 17 years. “When a pilot is hired here, he spends the rest of his career here,” he said. “The turnover happens when someone retires.”
While their daily flow of emergency calls keeps the members of the air ops section sharp, it’s still not enough. “Everybody goes to school–our medics, our captains, our pilots, our mechanics. That type of additional training brings a lot of strength to our organization,” said Marrone. Each year the pilots attend flight safety simulator courses–in odd years for the Bell 412, and for the S-70 in even years–while the section’s maintenance team goes to factory schools to keep abreast of the latest techniques. Even the paramedic crewmembers are trained to a higher level than those at the ground fire stations.
For Marrone and his unit, the hard work translates directly into lives saved and property protected, all done under the highest levels of safety possible. “It’s a huge honor to be recognized by the helicopter industry and HAI,” he said.