Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fighting fires

How funny. According to this story {http://www.stuff.co.nz/4291957a11.html} on Stuff the Army has managed to burn 600 hectares of tussock and scrub by firing live rounds at it in the middle of a drought.

Stupid enough perhaps, but then it has to hire four civilian helicopters to help put the fire out! That's about 4 x $1500 = $6000/hr or $10/hectare per hour for what benefit? Once again the single-minded pursuit of military objectives by our defence force shows up the failings of our defence thinking.

This raises all sorts of obvious questions:
1. Was there a pressing need to fire explosives in the middle of a drought?
2. What sort of army fire-fighting resources were standing-by in case of fire?
3. What sort of fire-fighting resources does the force have anyway?

The simple fact is the army doesn't have much in the way of fire-fighting resources anyway. They have a few old fire-tenders, mostly for responding to fires around their own camps. Ohakea has crash tenders but obviously they have to remain available for the airforce - especially the C-130s who might need them.

The reason the army isn't really equipped to mount fire-fighting operations is that it isn't the army's main role. The army is there to kill people and blow things up. Fighting fires is the role of the fire service.

The review I carried out takes a completely different view. Because it is predicated on an all hazards response force the ability to fight fires is very much part of the force design. This ranges from the 3 IL-76MF transport aircraft, the 2 Mi-26 heavy lift helicopters and the MAN SX 8x8 fire/watercannon platoon. Obviously the EH101 and A109M helicopters would also be capable of fire-fighting.

The IL-76 is a very well regarded waterbomber and even the US Forest Service has called for IL76s to be used to fight US forest fires over their own C-130s because the intensity of the heavier payload extinguishes fires more completely. The Mi-26 can carry 10 tonnes of water at a time as indeed can the MAN SX 8x8 fire appliance. Put together the Mi-26's could keep the MAN SX tenders supplied with water or dump it directly on the fire.

The reason the hypothetical force is equipped for fire is simple. The hypothetical force is meant to be able handle all hazards. While fire is properly the domain of the fire service in the event of a major earthquake the fire service could well be overloaded. More to the point the availability of reticulated water would be compromised. Fire is the biggest destroyer of property after earthquakes as was proven in San Francisco in 1906, Tokyo in 1923 and indeed Napier in 1931.

Of course it is also possible that civilian services are cheaper than using force personnel. In my view this should not be the case. The defence force might be marginally more expensive in terms of dollars per hour due to a quality premium but there is no reason why they should be that much more. In fact one big Mi-26's plus the MAN SXs may well be cheaper to operate than four smaller choppers. And more to the point it can also be considered an impromptu training exercise if fire fighting is part of the force's overall remit.

So there we have it. Our existing force sets fire to hillsides and has to hire civilians to deal with it. The hypothetical force, were it dumb enough to forget the fire risk (stupidity being a human constant) could at least respond quickly with its own equipment to contain the damage if needed.