OCSD and OCFA Announce New Joint Air Operations Plan

Squabbling over helicopter rescues prompts Orange County sheriff, fire officials to offer plan for better teamwork

By ALMA FAUSTO | afausto@scng.com | Orange County Register
PUBLISHED: August 15, 2018 at 5:02 pm | UPDATED: August 15, 2018 at 7:16 pm
(Photo by Lynda Halligan, AOCDS)

After an extended and potentially dangerous squabble over which agency is better equipped to handle air rescues, Orange County fire and sheriff’s officials said Wednesday they’ve come up with a plan that emphasizes teamwork and will enable safer and more efficient emergency responses.

The joint plan emerged following a bitter, months-long feud between sheriff’s deputies and firefighters over rescues that involved the use of helicopters, and which in some cases led to delays in transporting injured people to hospitals.

On some occasions, copter crews from both the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority raced to the same remote areas, leading to mid-air confrontations while patients awaited care. The tangling between the agencies and lack of consolidated efforts in critical situations also drew recent scrutiny of the Orange County Grand Jury.

On Wednesday, leaders from both agencies and OCFA board members reiterated how squabbles among air crews do not help patients.

“If you or a loved one are in need of help and you call 911 for a public safety professional, you don’t care what color uniform the person is wearing when they arrive or what words are painted on the body of the helicopter when you are lifted in it for life-saving medical care,” Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said.

Under the new plan, the two agencies will “function as a unified team” as part of a year-long strategy that will include working toward integrating dispatch, standardizing incident communications such as radio frequencies and terminology, training together and possibly centralizing aircraft at John Wayne Airport.

Officials said each call would observe the Incident Command System, which standardizes the responses of emergency incidents.

In June, the grand jury recommended the agencies consolidate their helicopters into one unit. When asked about those recommendations on Wednesday, OCFA Assistant Chief Dave Anderson said “additional research” would be needed before that happened, noting there was not one sole person in charge of both helicopter fleets.

“We understand that there are some broader aspects to the recommendation and we’re certainly willing to look at those and discuss them,” he said.

On day to day 911 calls, the plan is to notify both agencies’ dispatch centers

“From there we will notify our air crews and then there becomes a discussion on where are our resources located, who’s in the best position, what are your staffing and availability, what are your fuel levels…and based upon all of those pieces of information the best resource will be assigned to handle that incident.”

Officials cited the ongoing Holy fire burning in south Orange County and Riverside County as an example of both agencies being involved, as sheriff’s helicopters helped OCFA by dropping water from their copters.

The agencies’s operating plan is effective immediately and will continue indefinitely until either party provides notice to terminate, according to the plan document. The plan will be updated annually or more frequently as needed.

Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said he was encouraged to see that, after months of discussion, management from both agencies had reached a mutual aid agreement related to helicopter deployment.

“The safety of our community members and our public safety officers, who are in the field saving lives under treacherous circumstances, are of the utmost importance,” he said.

Under the now-expired agreement that was active for years, sheriff’s department helicopter crews conducted air patrols most of the day and helped with searches, usually for missing people or hikers while fire helicopters handled the rescues.

The rescues required the helicopters to touch the ground in often inaccessible spots and hoist patients up in emergency situations. But now that the sheriff’s air fleet has recently acquired two new helicopters that can also hoist patients and they have paramedics on-board aircraft.

In 2017, sheriff’s air support unit conducted 58 rescues, according to the department. In 2016, the latest data available, the fire authority conducted 131 rescues.

It’s unclear how many times sheriff’s responders and fire pilots have come to rescue the same person.

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