Sheriff and Fire Departments in Orange County feud over helicopter responses

Above: file photo of firefighter with Orange County Fire Authority helicopter. OCFA photo.

In an air battle over the responsibility for helicopter rescues in Orange County, California the losers are the taxpayers and accident victims.

Historically the County Sheriff’s Department air fleet has taken the lead for searches, while the Orange County Fire Authority has handled rescues. Recently, however, the Sheriff has been poaching responses to rescues resulting in multiple helicopters appearing over the same incident potentially causing airspace conflicts and confusion.

According to the Orange County Register it happened twice on April 29, with the Sheriff’s helicopter being told repeatedly by the Incident Commander they were not requested and then ignoring orders to “stand down”.

Below is an excerpt from their article:

…Recordings from radio chatter on Saturday show sheriff pilots ignoring direct orders from local commanders.

In Orange, the commander on the ground told the sheriff pilot, “You will abide by what the ground (Incident Commander) is asking you to do.”

The sheriff helicopter completed the medical assistance call anyway.

“My concern is if you have four aircraft in the air, and the sheriff refuses to communicate, who will get hurt if there is an air accident?” said Orange City Fire Dept. Deputy Chief Robert Stefano.

In Laguna Beach, where an intoxicated 17-year-old was pulled from a beach cove, the commander told the Sheriff’s pilot, “You are not requested.” The Laguna official also declared that the Sheriff’s pilot was creating “an unsafe air operation” by not answering direct orders.

In another recording of the same incident, a Laguna Beach dispatcher told a fire official “It sounds like the sheriffs have gone rogue. They’re not listening to the (Incident Commander).”

It is absurd that emergency management professionals operating very expensive aircraft cannot act like adults and do what is best for the taxpayers, citizens, and accident victims who need the best medical care available administered in a safe environment.

The Orange County Register has a recording of the radio conversations that is astounding.

Orange County helicopters ready for night flying

The Orange County Fire Authority now has four helicopters ready to operate at night. Beginning in March, the southern California agency began a six-month pilot program in which their four helicopters rotate 24-hour shifts to cover day and night.

In 2008 the OCFA made the decision to begin using helicopters at night to fight fire. They even purchased $25 million worth of helicopters specially outfitted for night flying, but a dispute with their pilots’ union grounded them at night. The agency spent $100,000 on night-vision goggles and training, but union officials and department management grappled over the technicalities of the program.

Below are excerpts from an article in the Orange County Register:

…The benefit of night flights was shown on Sept. 4, 2010, when the fire authority sent a helicopter into a nighttime blaze for the first time. The crew made 12 water drops, and helped contain a 10-acre fire in less than three hours. The flight crew was in the parking lot on its way home when they got the a call around 7:56 p.m. for assistance.

The [six-month trial program] comes six years after an independent auditor recommended the fire authority could improve after the 2007 Santiago Fire that scorched more than 28,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes in Orange County.

Because of budgetary and safety concerns, round-the-clock air operations took a back seat to other issues in the six years since adopting night-vision technology, said Gene Hernandez, vice chairman of the Fire Authority’s board of directors.

“There was significant changes occurring in the organization that we needed to address, and this wasn’t a front-burner issue,” Hernandez said, citing budget cuts at the time.

The extra coverage allows the fire agency to respond to the 25 percent of calls for air assistance that used to fall outside the previous 12-hour duty day, according to a staff report. Last year, the agency’s helicopters responded to 196 calls total.

The helicopters sometimes still flew at night, but only when on-call crews responded back to work.

Under the new program, one aircraft will be staffed with a pilot and crew chief, with a firefighter/paramedic rescuer added on the weekends, at an annual cost of $1.5 million.