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Equipping California’s First Responders, Before the Next Disaster Strikes

New vehicles to help save lives in mountains, cities, and on beaches, reduce risks for firefighters.


California Wildfires

Santa Barbara County Fire Department's new Ford Raptor. (Photo Courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

His cell phone rang at 2 a.m. on a Thursday morning. A plane was missing.

The Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Incident Commander rustled himself out of bed, notified his team, and drove into the mountains, following radar tracks provided by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The probability we had a downed, crashed airplane was very, very high,” said Nelson Trichler, the Incident Commander.

At first light, he deployed his team to Figueroa Mountain, in Los Padres National Forest. It had been raining the night before, and the ground was slick. They were searching for a signal from the doomed plane’s emergency locator transmitter, or ELT, which is designed to go off when it hits the ground.

There was nothing from the ELT, but then a member of the Search and Rescue Team hollered. There was some debris up on a ridge.

Trichler and his team would spend the next seven hours climbing up and creating a rope system to recover the body and information for the official crash report.

They got back later that afternoon, as another call came in. Three hikers were stuck on top of a cliff.

The team scaled the cliff and were able to save the hikers’ lives by rappelling them down about 400 feet.

“That’s kind of the typical stuff we do,” said Trichler in an interview with Direct Relief.

Trichler, and his entire search and rescue team, are volunteers. He works as a personal financial planner when he’s not responding to emergency calls.

The unit manages to accomplish these harrowing missions despite relying mostly on community funding. Only vehicle maintenance and gas costs are covered by the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department.

Budget shortfalls have also resulted in dated equipment, such that some of their vehicles are almost 20 years old.

Land, Sea and Air

Recognizing these needs in the wake of the January 2018 Montecito debris flow, which claimed 23 lives, Santa Barbara-based Direct Relief donated vehicles and other critical equipment to local and other California-based first responders. Trichler’s unit received a Ford F-250 and a UTV.

Each California fire department and rescue team that received vehicles from Direct Relief has outfitted them for a specific, crucial mission. Some will be mobile command posts. One will serve its professional purpose on the beach, helping save surfers and swimmers. Another will be in the mountains, surmounting rough terrain and obstacles for rescues and firefighting.

Butte County, and the City of Paradise, still recovering from the Camp Fire, will be outfitting their two Dodge Ram 2500s as instant mobile command posts capable of acting as a central rallying point for all responders during the next crisis.

“Communication is paramount,” said Butte County Fire Assistant Chief John Messina about firefighting. “If you look at tragic fires in history, one of the major factors is poor communications.”

The vehicle will have communications devices, computers, and even a printer. It will also be able to provide communication abilities regardless of conditions, due to a Direct Relief-donated Star-Runner, which allows for access to satellite systems, as well as tow trailers with technical rescue gear for urban and water environments.

Butte County Fire Department's new satellite communcations tool (Photo Courtesy of the Butte County Fire Department)
Butte County Fire Department’s new satellite communications tool. (Photo Courtesy of the Butte County Fire Department)

“We’re using it for surf and ocean rescue, so we have racks for a rescue (surf)board,” said Ventura Fire Department Battalion Chief Kris McDonald about their Ford F-150, which has also been outfitted with an air compressor (to air down tires for beach use), Opticom technology to change traffic signals, mobile data computers, dual siren system, multicolor LED lights around the exterior, and two-way radios.

“It allows us to get our rescue swimmers to the water’s edge much faster,” said McDonald.

Another vehicle, a Ford Explorer, is used as a command vehicle, but could also be deployed as a frontline asset in critical situations, when local resources have been exhausted, such as during the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara Fire Department is using their new Ford Raptor and Honda Pioneer UTV in tandem, hitching the utility vehicle to the truck, which was the configuration when they used the vehicles in responding to the Camp Fire in Paradise, California.

The Santa Barbara County Fire Department’s new UTV on the beach. (Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department)

When not being deployed in state emergencies, the vehicles are used for 911 calls in-county.

“They respond to areas we have a hard time getting fire engines to,” said Kevin Jones, a Santa Barbara County fire department engineer.

The Pioneer has a bevy of off-road accessories, including a skid plate and bracketry to hold baskets (for casualties). This replaces the four to six firefighters which were previously required to carry the basket, allowing for faster response times and fewer injuries to firefighters.

The Raptor, with its capstan winch, can also reduce the number of firefighters needed to conduct a rescue by using a powered system instead of manpower for rope rescues.

The ground transport, including a Ford Raptor and UTV donated to Montecito Fire, comes in addition to airborne assets, in the form of a Firehawk—a military Black Hawk outfitted for firefighting—for which Direct Relief donated $400,000 to Santa Barbara County.

‘Overwhelming Tragedy’ Leads To New, Fast Action

“The county budget doesn’t have enough funding to get everything we need,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told Direct Relief.

Direct Relief “really stepped up to support the ‘Home Team,’ guys who are members of the community, ” he said.

Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, and SBC Search and Rescue Commander Nelson Trichler in front of the new Search vehicle. (Noah Smith/Direct Relief)
Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, and SBC Search and Rescue Commander Nelson Trichler in front of the new Search vehicle. (Noah Smith/Direct Relief)

“Their generous support to victims of disaster, let alone their support of first responders, is unmatched by any other organization. We are extremely fortunate to have Direct Relief in our community,” said Jones.

As a privately funded non-profit organization, Direct Relief was able to provide first responders with what they needed far more quickly than government procurement processes. The cost of the Santa Barbara donations was $564,889.58. The Butte County totals came to $503,130.47.

“Given the overwhelming scale and tragedy of the (Montecito 2018) debris flow, Direct Relief was looking to help in anyway it could both in the immediate aftermath and for the future, and while outside our normal course of support, the benefit of being in a position to help our local first Search and Rescue responders with a purpose built vehicle was clear,” said Damon Taugher, Director of U.S. Programs at Direct Relief.

“Within a week, I had 2 vehicles delivered to my doorstep,” said McDonald.

Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, and SBC Search and Rescue Commander Nelson Trichler review the new Search vehicle. (Noah Smith/Direct Relief)
Direct Relief CEO Thomas Tighe, Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, and SBC Search and Rescue Commander Nelson Trichler review the new search vehicle. (Noah Smith/Direct Relief)

Messina noted that in his case, a new vehicle might not have been in the works at all.

“Paradise is financially ruined, they weren’t going to replace their vehicle,” said Messina.

“We now have an ability to set up a robust command post on site,” he said.

Giving is Good Medicine

You don't have to donate. That's why it's so extraordinary if you do.