Los Angeles Fire Department Turns to Technology to Fight Southern California Fires

With fires raging in Southern California, the LAFD is turning to high-tech helicopters and drones.
Donna Fuscaldo
Wildfire in California FrozenShutter/iStock

As dangerous fires continue to rage in Pacific Palisades and San Bernardino, California, firefighters are turning to technology to combat the fires that already burned at least three homes and forced evacuations overnight. 

Brian Humphrey, the spokesman for the Los Angles Fire Department said firefighters are relying in part on high-tech helicopters to put out the fires with an assist from drones, that are doing aerial reconnaissance to support the efforts. 

The LAFD helicopter fleet is a combination of medium and light helicopters that are used to suppress brush fires, act as an air ambulance transport, for high rise fire response, and for hoist rescue. 


High-tech helicopters working to put out fires 

In addition to being able to deliver high cruise speed even in tough conditions, the pilots of these high-tech helicopters use night vision technology to assist in the ground operations. The firefighters are also on the ground and using advanced communications radio systems, satellite imagery and a whole bevy of technologies to fight the fires. 

It's not surprising the LAFD is throwing a lot of technology at fires. With dry conditions, high temperatures and high winds throughout most of the week, a large portion of California is at high risk for fires. According to the National Weather Service parts of Southern California are expected to face an "extreme Red Flag warning" later this week.  The state has suffered through severe wildfires in recent years with the Camp Fire in Northern California last November still fresh in many people's minds. It was the deadliest wildfire in the state's history, causing the death of at least 85 residents. 

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More drones coming? 

While the drones are playing an assist role in the current fires raging in Southern California, in the future they will be used to fight the fires. As it stands the Los Angeles Fire Department, which is the third-largest fire department following New York City and Chicago, has 11 drones in its fleets that also includes 2587 fire engines, ambulances, and helicopters, reported TechCrunch.

It has a budget of close to $700 million and would like to increase the number of drones. In an interview with TechCrunch Battalion Chief Richard Fields, who heads up the unmanned aerial systems program at the fire department, said the next step is to use drones to support operations dealing with hazardous materials, search and rescue in urban setting and for swift water rescues. 

Drone program not without controversy 

In April the LAFD announced a partnership with drone maker DJI of China to test and deploy DJI drone technology. Through the partnership the LAFD will continue to deploy and test drone technology of DJI for fires and rescues. As of April, the LAFD has flown 175 missions using DJI's drones, which are equipped with thermal imaging cameras to provide real-time video and data transmission to commanders. 

The LAFD's partnership with DJI isn't without controversy. With lawmakers and regulators raising concerns about U.S. agencies working with Chinese companies. Huawei, the Chinese smartphone maker landed on a list earlier this year that banned companies in the U.S. from working with it. Fields told TechCrunch he takes the concerns seriously and had worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups to create stringent policies in terms of handling the data that the drones collect. Fields said the only data recorded and kept is information on brush fires. 

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