A metal tank equipped with remote controls sits amid dry brush on a hillside in the summer heat.
With the push of a button, a helicopter pilot fills the tank with water – saving precious time – so the tank is ready for the helicopter to drain.
This is the premise behind the Remotely Activated Snorkel Site (RASS) test held Monday afternoon in Anaheim Hills.
Anaheim Fire & Rescue, with Orange County Fire Authority and OC Parks, successfully tested a water tank created by Whaling Fire Line Equipment, Inc. and Superior Tank Company.
Anaheim Fire & Rescue is researching the RASS to install in remote areas that don’t have quick access to water for helicopter drops during wildfires. Essentially, the RASS is a fire hydrant for helicopters. The tanks can be installed above or below ground, and are designed to be environmentally friendly and meet all safety standards.
“It really can reduce the amount of time that it takes to refill and can significantly increase the number of water drops that they can do during firefighting operations,” Anaheim Fire & Rescue spokesman Daron Wyatt said. “This is just one of the new technologies that we’re looking at.”
The 10-foot-diameter metal or concrete tank can be connected by hose to a nearby hydrant, as it was during the test, but could also connect to local pipes to fill with 1,700 gallons of water. The tank would sit empty most of the time, but during a fire could tap into the utility when needed.
Once full, a helicopter can drop a snorkel into the tank to collect the water in just 45 seconds, which could shorten the time it takes to complete a water drop in remote areas. Often during remote fires, fire departments use a fire engine to set up a ground water fill, which takes an engine away from the fight.
In some cases, the RASS could shorten the turnaround time for water drops to a few minutes, said Orange County Fire Authority Battalion Chief Craig Covey, air operations and program manager for the four helicopters based at Fullerton Airport.
“That will give us the ability to show up on scene and be independent of any fire engine or other firefighters and immediately go to work with short turnaround times and more water drops per hour,” Covey said.
The snorkeling helicopter can carry 360 gallons, but sky crane helicopters can take up to 2,000 gallons, Covey said. The fast refill rate of the RASS would allow it to load a sky crane with 2,000 gallons of water, he said.
“Having sites like this close to the incidents that we routinely have in areas that are threats to our county will allow our aircraft to refill quickly and effectively and not impact the ground responders who can be doing other jobs critical to the incident,” Covey said.
The RASS is the passion project of Mark Whaling, an LA County fire battalion chief with 41 years of experience firefighting.
“The tank is not new but the brains and the muscle to control the water by communicating with the helicopter, that’s a new concept,” Whaling said. Anaheim Fire & Rescue partnered with Whaling for the test and evaluation phase of the product, but are not endorsing any particular manufacturer.
The RASS would cost $30,000 to $50,000 to install – about the cost of two fire hydrants, Whaling said.
Anaheim Hills resident Robert Hernandez said he hopes Anaheim Fire & Rescue installs a tank system near his neighborhood. Hernandez is a retired Anaheim Fire & Rescue captain and a former member of the Anaheim City Council. He is still in the process of repairing damage to his home from the Canyon Fire 2 in October 2017.
“It’s obviously a good tool for the fire service and it can be a boost to homeowners, not only in the fact that you have better protection because of the quick source of water, but the benefit is often reflected in the insurance costs… This tremendously decreases the hazard in remote areas like this,” Hernandez said. “There’s a cost benefit, there’s a safety benefit, there’s a property benefit, there’s a life benefit, there’s so many benefits from this concept it’s just hard to find any fault with it.”