When Dan Child checks the weather to see if it’s a good day for a hike, it’s not because he’s planning an afternoon stroll up Runyon Canyon. He’s gauging the odds. A lead pilot with the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Air Operations Unit, Child has been rescuing the lost, dehydrated, and injured hikers of L.A. for eight years. In 2016, the LAFD responded to more than 200 EMS calls in the city’s hills, and a lot of them were in Runyon, among the most popular hiking areas in L.A. (almost 2 million visitors a year by some estimates).
“The hikers are coming!” he says, laughing one morning in the Air Ops headquarters, which is set behind the secure perimeter of Van Nuys Airport. “On a hot weekend everybody wants to go hiking. They just come unprepared. They don’t want to take water because it’s more weight, or they take a shortcut trail and it leads them to a cliff.” People travel farther than they realize, it starts to get dark, and they panic or get lost. Child doesn’t judge.
The vast Air Ops hangar is home to the LAFD’s six helicopters, which are used for dropping water on brushfires and serving as air ambulances as well as hoisting rescues. They’re surprisingly roomy inside—like SUVs, with space for four firefighters, including the pilot, and multiple patients. A large red backpack on one seat contains everything from IV fluids to morphine to the supplies needed to stabilize a broken ankle.
Child and his crew are called in for those emergencies that are hard to reach on foot. It takes just eight or nine minutes to fly from Van Nuys to Runyon and even less time to transport a person. “We can get the patient in a bag, hoist them up. They’ll be at the hospital in three or four minutes,” he says.
Child finds himself returning to the same locations in Runyon over and over. There’s the steep spot on the West trail, where, he says, “everybody breaks their ankle.” Then there’s that hill, where people always try to blaze their own trail and end up tumbling down it. Child notices that calls increase around New Year’s, when people overexert themselves on the trails after making ambitious resolutions.
Smartphones have helped the LAFD enormously in locating people who need help, but Child wonders whether they also lead to more injuries. “People sometimes film themselves and possibly do something more adventurous than they might be capable of,” he says. Selfies could be a factor, too: Standing on the side of the mountain, holding up a phone with downtown framed in the background—all it takes is one misstep, and in a few minutes Child may be circling overhead.
“It’s a high-risk operation to lower a firefighter,” says Battalion Chief Glenn Miyagishima, who oversees the area’s ground crews. In Bronson Canyon, for instance, rescuers rarely use a hoist because of the turbulence caused by the rotors. “Our ground rescuers get hit by rocks,” he says. In such cases, they hike to the victim.
Training is constant. Child and the other 16 Air Ops pilots repeat flight-safety courses every year and run practice hoists, even night hoists, to ensure they’re prepared for anything. Which is more than can be said for most of the hikers they rescue. “There’s a reason why we’re in business,” he says with a laugh.