Calif. county police take control of air rescues from fire dept.

In the past two years the two departments have clashed, with police and fire helicopters jockeying in the air to be the first to arrive at rescue calls


By Tony Saavedra
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has taken over the county’s helicopter rescue operations after talks disintegrated with the county fire authority in the turf war over who should conduct air rescues.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said this week that her department has not renewed an agreement that named the Orange County Fire Authority as the primary agency in handling air rescues in remote wilderness and park areas.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department has taken over the county's helicopter rescue operations after talks disintegrated with the county fire authority. (Photo/OCSD)
The Orange County Sheriff's Department has taken over the county's helicopter rescue operations after talks disintegrated with the county fire authority. (Photo/OCSD)

Though that arrangement worked for years, with the Fire Authority handling rescues in the county, in the past two years the two departments have clashed, with Sheriff’s Department helicopters and Fire Authority helicopters jockeying in the air to be the first to arrive at wilderness rescue calls. The feuding has led to dangerous confrontations between the two agencies during rescues and has set the stage for a potential collision.

The fighting has become so heated that firefighters have accused sheriff’s pilots of harassment.

Under the now expired agreement, sheriff’s helicopters were primarily used to patrol and to search out missing persons, leaving wilderness and other rescue operations to firefighters. The Fire Authority’s four helicopter teams include paramedics and are equipped with hoists to airlift the victims. Now, sheriff’s pilots have acquired hoists on two of their copters, and they’ve hired or trained personnel as paramedics.

The sheriff’s department also has said it plans to use its copters to fight wildfires, as well.

“As sheriff, I must ensure the public gets the best response when an emergency or life-threatening incident occurs,” Hutchens said.

Marc Stone, battalion chief with the fire authority, said his department was surprised and upset by Hutchens’ move to take over jobs that, for a generation, have been handled by firefighters.

“That would be like us putting shotguns in the front of our fire trucks,” Stone said.

“This has definitely caused a rift between the two agencies,” he added. “We don’t know where we stand right now.”

Leaders of both departments say their organization is better equipped — and in a better position to serve the public — on rescues.

“It is clear to me that the public is best served with the OCSD as the primary agency,” said Hutchens. “Our deployment model, response times, medical certifications and search and rescue expertise positions us to best provide this specific function.

“For me, the safety of the public always comes first.”

Stone at the fire authority dismissed out of hand the idea that sheriff deputies are better at rescue operations.

“They’re fooling themselves … Our paramedics run hundreds of calls a day. Our paramedics are far above theirs,” he added.

The county Board of Supervisors, empowered by the state government code, voted in October to let the Sheriff’s Department take control of search and rescue operations. The Sheriff’s Department and fire authority agreed to enter mediation on how to share the rescue duties.

Though those talks broke down, Hutchens said Thursday that her department would continue working with the fire authority.

“I am committed to working collaboratively with the Orange County Fire Authority and all other mutual-aid agencies to deliver the best public safety services to the citizens of Orange County,” Hutchens said. “Our agencies work together closely on a regular basis, and those partnerships will continue.”

During the two years that the two agencies have raced over the same rescue calls, sheriff’s helicopters have tended to arrive before fire copters, which some say is because the fire authority’s air unit is based in Fullerton while the sheriff’s helicopters are stationed centrally at John Wayne Airport. But fire copters — because they don’t have to stop to reposition patients as often — tend to get people to hospitals faster.

In 2010, the Orange County Grand Jury chided the sheriff’s department for not having enough helicopters – two at that time – to serve the county. The sheriff’s department now has the largest contingent of copters, with five aircraft. The fire authority has four helicopters and other police departments in the county, combined, have a total of six.

©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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