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Pre-determined aircraft dispatch soars statewide
It’s been three years since the inter-agency pre-determined dispatch (PDD) of aircraft began out of Bendigo. The joint initiative has been so successful it extended across the state for the 2014-15 summer.
This widespread rollout doesn’t necessarily mean widespread understanding of the ‘pre-determined’ concept, however, which is often incorrectly referred to as ‘automatic’ dispatch.
Rob Jarvis works for Parks Victoria and is the PDD coordinator out of the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) airbase at Bendigo. The aircraft onsite are a Helitak 335 firebombing helicopter and Firebird 305 from which the air attack supervisor (AAS) coordinates fire-bombing operations.
“From 17 November we have pilots and an air attack supervisor rostered onsite at the airbase between 10am and 6pm,” says Rob. “That is upgraded to 9am to 7pm on a day of Total Fire Ban (TFB).
“While they receive all pager messages for grass and scrub 1 and undefined fires, there must be certain triggers before they deploy – it’s not ‘automatic’. It must be called in within prescribed operating hours, within the Kyneton, Rushworth, Echuca and Wedderburn footprint, and the Fire Danger Index must be 12 or greater.
“There’s science behind it. We’re using a trigger point that we hope best represents the need for an aircraft deployment across the footprint. That being said, 12 is now the trigger point for aircraft PDD across the state.”
If aircraft are required outside those trigger points, they will be dispatched via the State Air Desk.
A statewide fleet of 20 aircraft are available under PDD arrangements.
The pilots begin their day by inspecting the aircraft. A daily crew briefing will cover such things as forecast weather, potential fire behaviour, regional readiness status, safety issues, fuel status and, current local and state fire activity. Aircrews are then ready to respond by 10am or 9am on a TFB.
“We need to know that the crews and aircraft are ready to go,” continues Rob. “The advantages are obvious. Aircraft response times are now about eight minutes on average which compares favourably to dispatch from a regional brigade.
“When the aircraft are deployed, the AAS gathers valuable intelligence and reports back to fire operations or the incident controller (IC). They have a three-dimensional view of the fire and can alert the IC to any firefighting hazards and assets up ahead or over the hill – from houses to caravan parks and stock. They also separate ground crews from firebombing zones, identify fuel types, hazards for firebombing operations and rate of spread.”
When it comes to weather and visibility, aircraft fly at the pilot’s discretion. They are responsible for the aircraft and crew safety which takes priority over firebombing operations, of course. If the weather becomes too turbulent they might still reconnoitre but not perform directed air attack.
Hot air rises and the updrafts vary across different terrain. The air density is lower on a hot day so aircraft must reduce the water load. On a regular day they carry about 2.7 tonne of water which is enough to damage vehicles, drop branches and dislodge rocks.
The safety of ground crews is paramount in any firebombing operation.
“A drop will only be made once contact is established between the ground and the aircraft,” says District 2 Operations Officer Chris Jacobsen, “so ground crews are well and truly out of the drop zone. Any private units on the fireground must work in conjunction with fire agencies for this reason.”
The firebombing aircraft will use 600 litres of fuel an hour. Their first fuel cycle is 2.5 hours while the second is 1.5 hours. While the preference is to refuel at Bendigo or another airfield, there is a crew at the DELWP depot on a seven-day roster ready to drive the fuel truck to remote hot refuelling sites.
There are also five aircraft officers operating out of Bendigo – a combination of volunteers and staff from CFA and DELWP. They look after the welfare of the aircrew, arrange for refuelling, monitor hours and communicate with the incident control centre.
There are strict fire agency and State Aircraft Unit procedures in relation to AAS flight and duty times. Aircrews are limited to a maximum of 10 hours in one day and up to 40 hours over a six day period followed by a two day break.
“Conditions get warm and uncomfortable in the aircraft but our crews prepare themselves to manage hydration levels and sustenance,” says Rob.
“From the CFA perspective,” says Chris, “PDD has helped with fireground command and reinforced the use of fireground channels. It’s strengthened fireground communications and structure and reinforced control points.
“Now we’re trying to hold back the expectations. Number one: aircraft don’t put out fires. They support the ground crews, but those ground crews give us feedback that if we don’t bring PDD back next year there’ll be a riot!”
See also the story on volunteer Air Attack Supervisor Andrew Avent.