New ‘fire hydrant’ for helicopters may cut wildfire response time

The Remotely Activated Snorkel Site uses robot-controlled valves to tap into an area’s municipal water system, allowing quick access for snorkel helicopters

By Kelly Puente
The Orange County Register

ANAHEIM HILLS, Calif. — With fire season heating up in Southern California, firefighters unveiled a new “fire hydrant” for helicopters on Monday that could drastically reduce turnaround times for water drops in remote areas.

Set on a 1,700-gallon metal water tank, the Remotely Activated Snorkel Site uses robot-controlled valves to tap into an area’s municipal water system, allowing quick access for snorkel helicopters that otherwise would have to spend valuable minutes flying to a reservoir or other water source.

The new technology, being field tested in Anaheim Hills, is the first of its kind in the country, officials from the Orange County Fire Authority and Anaheim Fire & Rescue said in a news conference Monday.


Firefighters hope it will be a game-changer in areas where open water sources are scarce.

“This really can reduce the amount of time it takes to refill and can significantly reduce the number of water drops they can do during firefighting operations,” Anaheim Fire spokesman Daron Wyatt said.

In a backdrop of brown hills scorched by the Canyon 2 fire last year, an OCFA helicopter on Monday hovered over the specialized tank and siphoned nearly 2,000 gallons of water within 45 seconds.

The helicopter pilot uses a remote-control system to active the valve and fill the water tank, eliminating the need for a firefighting ground crew to turn on the valve. The tank is empty when not in use.

“We’re not afforded the ability to have a close reservoir in many areas of the county, so this is technology that we’d be very interested in moving forward,” said Battalion Chief Craig Coby, who heads air operations for OCFA.

The special tank will be tested over the next year near Avenida de Santiago in Anaheim Hills.

Mark Whaling, a Los Angeles County Fire battalion chief and owner of Whaling Fire Line Equipment, said he got the idea for the technology while helping with the Canyon 2 fire in October. The blaze burned for eight days, charred 9,200 acres, destroyed 15 homes and displaced thousands of residents of Anaheim Hills and North Tustin.

“I thought, ‘There has to be a way we can get to the water easier and quicker,’” he said.

Whaling, who specializes in new firefighting technology, said he developed the Remotely Activated Snorkel Site through much trial and error. The system costs between $30,000 to $50,000 to install – about twice the cost of a basic fire hydrant, he said.

The water-dropping helicopters do not have to be specially modified at all for this technology. The county’s park system is helping out by allowing the tank to be placed on park land.

If the trial period is a success, the county could consider buying several tank systems, officials said. The tanks can be placed above or below ground.

The effort comes as officials vowed to step up fire prevention following the Canyon 2 fire. In recent months, separate reports from Orange County and the Orange County Fire Authority blamed the fire’s size and destruction on human error and lapses by OCFA officials.

Copyright 2018 The Orange County Register

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