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New Tool Near Quest Lab Will Help Combat Wildfires

Emergency officials in Southern California and Quest colleagues recently celebrated the completion of a new tool located on the grounds of our laboratory in San Juan Capistrano that will help first responders in the battle against wildfires for generations to come.

This new tool created by the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA) — dubbed a "HeloPod" — located on Quest property contains a 3,700-gallon water tank that serves as an easy refilling station for OCFA helicopters in the event of a wildfire nearby. The project has been in the works for some five years, but due to a combination of solid ideals — community champion, collaboration, and diligence — these values can be used to describe this newly completed project.

"The motto of the Orange County Fire Authority, ‘In service of others, and Quest’s Purpose statement, ‘Working together to create a healthier world, one life at a time,’ are great examples of working together, and the installation of this HeloPod is a tangible representation of that alignment," said Warren Spalding, Executive Director, Laboratory Operations.

Location, Location, Location
The Nichols Institute, also referred to as Quest Diagnostics San Juan Capistrano, (SJC) comprises one hundred acres on the Ortega Highway, surrounded by regional park land, national forest, and a nature reserve.

The rural location of the facility and the surrounding undeveloped land are dangerously vulnerable to wildland fires. The most recent fire was in 2020, when a cigarette that was tossed from a car started uncontrolled flames along the southern edge of the Ortega Highway.

The resulting blaze near the Quest property swiftly scorched further south and uphill, l deeper into campus land, coming within a perilously hazardous 20-30 feet of the campus’ two main laboratory buildings.

At the time, the closest suitable water source for extinguishing the fire was a 20-minute round-trip flight to a local golf course in a residential neighborhood.

A prototype tool to battle blazes
In 2019, representatives from OCFA approached the Base Building team at Quest SJC to share a prototype tool to support air operations (ie, water-dropping helicopters).

This tool, a portable helicopter dip source cistern, was presented as a reliable and convenient water source to refill firefighting helicopters quickly and efficiently. The potential benefits of having a reliable, accessible water source were key in primary discussions between OCFA and the SJC Base Building team.

After discussion regarding the tool, the Quest team reached out and engaged representatives from Santa Margarita Water District (SMWD), as they support and maintain the entire water system of the Quest SJC campus.

As construction of the proposed project would represent the first collaboration between a California Public Safety Authority and a private landowner, all parties involved were excited. Conversations, on-site meetings, and telephone calls were common as the entities worked separately and in tandem to gain county and community approval to proceed with project construction. Once complete, it would benefit not only Quest SJC but many homes and businesses that reside along the Ortega Highway corridor.

All that was needed to bring this idea to fruition was to secure funding. Quest SJC Base Building guided conversations between OCFA, SMWD, and their various legal teams to craft a land use agreement that all involved could agree legally safeguarded the parties separate and combined interests.

Putting a plan into action
Four years later, final approvals were secured to place a Tactical - Mobile Aerial Dip Source or T—MADS HeloPod” on the campus of Nichols Institute. Shortly after, OFCA was able to secure approval and funding from the Orange County Board of Supervisors to purchase and maintain the HeloPod.

For their part, the water district provided the raw materials and physical labor required to tap into the campus water/hydrant system. Quest Diagnostics SJC provided both the land and (ongoing) access to support the efforts of OCFA flight operations.

On December 15, 2023, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held to celebrate the completion of this key new tool that will provide for the safety of the people, land, and properties along the Ortega Corridor for generations to come.

Representatives from the Orange County Board of Supervisors, OCFA, SMWD, and Quest were present to formally dedicate the HeloPod system and recognize the efforts of a few individuals for the good of many.