Jan. 23–The leaders of Orange County’s sheriff and fire departments have been summoned to appear before the Board of Supervisors out of concern that the helicopter war raging between the agencies may lead to a mid-air collision.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer said Monday he is also concerned that sheriff’s deputies might start arresting Orange County Fire Authority pilots in the fight over who should conduct air rescues.
For two years, sheriff’s and fire pilots have disputed in public, sometimes racing each other to get their helicopters to rescue scenes.
“That kind of behavior is going to cause a horrible, horrible disaster,” Spitzer said.
Last week, Spitzer and Supervisor Shawn Nelson called Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and fire authority Chief Pat McIntosh to appear at Tuesday’s board meeting. Spitzer said he wants leaders of the two agencies to clarify what role each plays in rescuing victims found in wilderness and beach areas.
The summons comes days after Hutchens unilaterally took charge, saying her agency is now officially responsible for air rescue missions in remote county areas.
County lawyers say state code and a board vote in October gave her the legal ability to name sheriff’s pilots as the primary responders for air rescues. Firefighters, who traditionally have held the rescue job while sheriff’s pilots focused on searches, disagree with Hutchens’ recent decree. They said they plan to continue with air rescues, much as they have for a generation.
“Nothing has changed just because the sheriff made a statement,” said Battalion Chief Craig Covey.
Each side claims to provide better service.
It’s unclear if the meeting Tuesday will change the stance of the sheriff’s department.
“We remain committed to working with all mutual aid agencies, including OCFA, in the delivery of public safety services,” said sheriff spokesperson Carrie Braun.
Spitzer and others suggest that the stalemate is dangerous to pilots and possibly the public. That fear was illustrated by the latest squabble between the agencies, a Jan. 14 incident involving two sheriff’s helicopters and a fire authority aircraft over Irvine Regional Park.
Radio chatter from the incident indicates that a fire helicopter flew in close proximity between two sheriff’s copters. The sheriff’s pilot can be heard asking fire officials, “Can you explain why (the fire helicopter) just flew underneath us and into the rescue traffic area?”
Fire officials explain, “It should be safe… We have plenty of airspace between the two of us. ”
The sheriff pilot responded, “That may be your opinion, but we typically don’t have other helicopters flying around.”
Battalion Chief Covey said the incident was a result of poor communication from the sheriff’s helicopter, which led the fire copter to unintentionally fly into the area. However, Covey said, the fire pilot maintained a safe distance. He also suggested the sheriff’s pilot overreacted on the radio to create “a sound byte that we have to validate.”