L.A. to Buy High-Tech Copter for Disaster Command Center

Times Staff Writer

Hoping to better handle major emergencies, Los Angeles officials are planning to buy an airborne "command-and-control" center, a one-of-a-kind helicopter loaded with infrared video cameras, night-vision equipment and other high-tech devices.

The ship would carry aloft a team of managers from various city agencies to survey disaster scenes and coordinate relief activities, according to a 134-page bid request sent out last month to helicopter manufacturers. The helicopter is expected to cost at least $3 million.

"No other government agency has what we're putting together," said George A. Morrison, a Los Angeles police commander who sits on the city's Emergency Operations Board and who first suggested the need for a command ship.

Bids are due back in December, but it may be another two years before the aircraft is ready to fly, officials said.

The Los Angeles Police Department already has 15 helicopters and 10 others are used by the city's General Services and Fire departments. None, however, is big enough to carry the equipment and the number of observers envisioned by Morrison.

Under his plan, police officers would probably pilot the helicopter, which would be based downtown at the Police Department's helipad atop the C. Erwin Piper Technical Center, but the aircraft would be made available to any city agency during emergencies, such as a mud slide or fast-moving brush fire.

In a citywide disaster, particularly an earthquake, half a dozen managers from the departments of Water and Power, Street Maintenance, Engineering and Public Works, plus other agencies, would board the helicopter to assess damage from the air. The officials would sit at their own work stations equipped with radios that would put them in instant contact with their agencies' ground units.

The helicopter's radio systems would also be able to monitor virtually any public broadcast frequency.

Moreover, the helicopter would have on-board computer terminals, television monitors, mobile telephones, 30-million candlepower searchlights and a gyro-stabilized binocular system that would compensate for aircraft vibration, affording observers a steady view of the ground.

Morrison said the helicopter would also be equipped with forward-looking, infrared video cameras that would use thermography--the mapping of heat--to help pinpoint leakage from damaged power plants. The cameras could also be used to help locate buried bodies.

Anticipate Needs

Obtaining a command-and-control helicopter represents the last phase of a three-phase program started about five years ago to improve Los Angeles' emergency equipment and tactics, Morrison said. That effort began after a series of brush fires and winter storms ravaged parts of Los Angeles, spurring officials to anticipate their needs in a worst case scenario.

A master plan was subsequently prepared and the city's Korean War-vintage civil defense radios were replaced.

"In the past, when an emergency disaster hit the city, it was six hours minimum before we figured out how bad we were hurt, then you add on the time of recovery, and you're talking a long time," said Capt. Robert O. Woods, who commands the Police Department's Air Support Division. "With this helicopter, what were looking for, especially when that 8-point (earthquake) hits us, is to get a quick assessment of damages and immediately start effecting recovery activities."

The reinforced concrete-and-brick Piper Center, where the helicopter will be based, is considered earthquake-proof. Woods, who is project manager for the command-and-control helicopter, said one problem has been trying to figure out what to do with the aircraft most of the time.

"That's the issue: What it would do when there was no disaster," Woods said. "But you just can't buy a piece of equipment and say, 'Here guys, use it when you need it.' We'll probably spend a lot of time training people in it."

Electronic Components

Woods said he doubted that the helicopter will be designed "from the ground up." Instead, he said, the airframe and turbine engine already will likely have been manufactured, perhaps even used, and then simply outfitted with the desired electronic components.

Several major helicopter manufacturers have expressed interest in the project, Woods said.

So too have Japanese officials, who have studied the Los Angeles' plan and intend to launch their own command-and-control helicopter, he said.

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