Sheriff's Dept. has new eye-in-the-sky
By Greg Gross
2:08 p.m. January 2, 2008

EL CAJON – The San Diego County Sheriff's Department has a new aerial eye-in-the-sky that will split time between fighting crime and fighting fires – day or night.

The aircraft is a Bell 407 helicopter, acquired in November at a cost of about $2 million, paid for by state and federal homeland security grants.

Based at Gillespie Field in El Cajon, the 407 is an enlarged and improved version of the venerable Bell 206 JetRanger, packed with state-of-the-art cameras, infrared sensors and communications gear, as well as a more powerful gas turbine engine and a four-blade main rotor compared with the JetRanger's two blades.

“It's like a JetRanger on steroids,” said Battalion Chief Ray Chaney, in charge of air operations in the county for Cal Fire.

Sheriff's deputies plan to use it for patrol duties, to fly in SWAT teams and as a flying “command and control” platform for major incidents. Those abilities also give it a role in firefighting, according to the Sheriff's Department.

The 407's communications equipment allows pilots to see fires through smoke or in darkness, and transmit information and images back to fire commanders on the ground in real time, making it ideal to direct firefighting helicopters and even air tankers fighting large fires, Chaney said.

The infrared sensors and communications setup are similar to those on larger Huey helicopters being used by the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, as well as the FireCobra, a converted helicopter gunship being used by the U.S. Forest Service as a command and control chopper for fighting wildfires.

“It's the same equipment the (San Diego city) fire department is using now, so it gives the county an added capability,” said R.W. Curry, a pilot who heads ASTREA, the sheriff's aerial unit. “That way, if they're not available for whatever reason, we can fill in for them, and if we're not available, they can fill in for us.”

The chopper also comes with a hook that can hold a 200-gallon “Bambi bucket” to allow the 407 to fight fires itself. The hook can calculate the weight of water in the bucket, letting pilots know how many drops they can make, Curry said.

Furthermore, the 407 will be equipped to make water drops at night, a point of controversy in the wake of the October firestorms.

Chaney pointed to the 407 as proof of success of the partnership between the Sheriff's Department and Cal Fire in aerial firefighting, a relationship that developed two years after the 2003 fire siege, the most destructive fires in county history.

The Sheriff's Department's two Bell 205 Huey helicopters fly with Cal Fire officers and firefighting crews aboard, landing firefighters at remote sites beyond the reach of fire engines and making water drops on flames.

“We've broken down the walls and created a real partnership of multiple agencies, all with a common cause, to serve the public,” Chaney said.

Sheriff's pilots will evaluate the 407 in action before deciding whether to add more to the county inventory, Curry said.