Fire fleets are ready

HIGH-TECH: Pre-determined dispatch helicopters will prevent fires from rapidly expanding and becoming out-of-control.
HIGH-TECH: Pre-determined dispatch helicopters will prevent fires from rapidly expanding and becoming out-of-control.

A fleet of fire bombing aircraft will be automatically sent to any scrub or grass fires on high risk days  so firefighters can attack fires to stop them from spreading out of control. 

Despite community anxiety surrounding Emergency Management Victoria’s decision to relocate the 7500 litre capacity aircrane from Ballarat to Moorabbin, the state’s emergency services commissioner says the new pre-determined dispatch will ensure faster response and reduce the number of out of control fires.

The aircrane that has been based in Ballarat for the last six fire seasons will be replaced by Bell 412 aircraft.

The helicopters have 1400 litre tanks and can be refilled in less than a minute, District 15 operations manager Brett Boatman said.

Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said this strategic decision would mean firebombing aircrafts would be in the sky responding to fires at the same time as trucks left the station. 

“(The aim is) to keep the small fire small. You can never put fire out from the sky, what you can do is pull them in,” Mr Lapsley said.

“By being in the sky, the principle of keeping a small fire small is absolutely critical – making sure it doesn't get the same level of intensity and doesn't run as hard,” Mr Lapsley said. 

Mr Lapsley said modelling showed the more agile aircraft could be up in the air, attacking fires in the half the time of the aircrane. 

He said modelling showed that if trucks got to the fire in ten minutes and then notified the air controllers that an aircrane needed to be dispatched the quickest the aircrane could be there was  27th minute of the fire.

In that same period the predetermined dispatch helicopter could be used nine times, Mr Lapsley said. This would ensure 12,600 litres of water was bombed onto the fire. 

“Predetermined dispatch provides a faster attack on fires, with the aim of keeping small fires, small,” Mr Lapsley said. 

“Last year predetermined dispatch operated at 14 locations with 20 firebombing aircraft on automatic response.

“This proved to be extremely effective and successful, with the majority of fires being extinguished with limited damage and in quick time.”

Predetermined dispatch of aircraft was a key recommendation of the 2009 Victorian Royal Bushfires Commission and an outcome supported by both sides of government.

It has been one of the initiatives undertaken as part of a multi-year improvement program that has successfully enhanced initial attack both in procedure and capability.

Mr Boatman said predetermined dispatch would occur on days with a fire danger index of 12 or higher which is “pretty much every day in Summer in Ballarat”.

Emergency Management Victoria would not release the cost of this service. 

“A fast response means that the people on the ground get more help, and in a fire service where most of firefighters are volunteers we can reduce the times we are taking them away from lives for a shorter period of time,” Mr Boatman said.

“So this service is helping make communities safer and (indirectly) helping volunteers.”

The 412 Bell helicopters take half the time of the aircrane to become airborne, Mr Boatman said, and the craft in Ballarat will be followed by airborne air attack supervisor. 

“When brigades are paged,  the aircrafts are paged. The air attack supervisor goes side-by-side,” Mr Boatman said.

This provides an extra “set-of-eye” to assist both the pilot and the firefighters on the ground.”

Ballarat will receive a Helitack 334, a Bell 412 with a 1400 litre bellytank and Firebrid 307, an AS350 B3 Squirrel air attack supervisor.

They will be launched on December 14.