In a significant leap forward for regional firefighting capabilities, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department on November 20 unveiled the latest addition to its fleet — its first-ever night-flying firefighting helicopter.
Sheriff Kelly Martinez displayed the new firefighting helicopter, a Bell 412EPX, during a press conference at the Aerial Support to Law Enforcement Agencies (ASTREA) base in El Cajon, California.
The state-of-the-art Bell 412EPX is equipped with a 375-gallon tank designed for water or foam drops to combat wildfires. This twin-engine helicopter also boasts a cruise speed of 142 mph and an impressive range of 417 miles, making it well suited for both long-range operations and rapid response scenarios.
With a price tag of $15.7 million, the acquisition was funded through the agency’s budget and contributions from Proposition 172, the Local Public Safety Protection and Improvement Act of 1993.
County Fire and Cal Fire San Diego Unit Chief Tony Mecham said that the new helicopter would significantly enhance the response capabilities for wildfires and remote area rescues.
The sheriff’s department has continually upgraded its firefighting aviation abilities since the devastating Cedar Fire in 2003.
The Bell 412EPX, which has a 14-person seating capacity, includes a crew consisting of a deputy pilot, a Cal Fire captain and a paramedic. It can also accommodate seven firefighters in the rear for firefighting missions.
The new aircraft signifies a departure from the aging Bell 205s, originally built in the 1960s, with plans to order two more 412EPX helicopters in the future.
According to the manufacturer, the 412 is equipped with the Bell BasiX Pro™ Integrated Avionic System, including advanced features such as Garmin GTN-750 NAV/COM/WAAS GPS, Helicopter Terrain Avoidance Warning System (H-TAWS) capability and Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) technology.
Sheriff Martinez expressed the importance of the new helicopter, saying, “It’s simply just time for the department to get a new helicopter with firefighting capability.”
The sheriff’s department plans to retire one Bell 205 after the crew for the new helicopter completes its necessary training.
According to the department, the flight crew, which works alongside a Cal Fire crew, must undergo several months of rigorous training.
Alongside the firefighting addition, the sheriff’s department unveiled a new patrol helicopter, the Bell 407GXi, dedicated to law enforcement operations 24 hours a day.
This latest investment aims to enhance the region’s overall safety and emergency response capabilities.
Sheriff Martinez also acknowledged the crucial role played by County Supervisor Joel Anderson in securing the new helicopters.
“We’ve got a full complement now of patrol helicopters, and that should last us a long time,” Martinez said. “It’s a great investment in the future.”