Saturday, October 10 , 2015, 3:59 am | Fog/Mist 68º

Safety, Reliability of County Fire Department Helicopters Challenged After Hiker’s Death

Officials dispute allegations claiming rift between fire, sheriff's department is taking a toll on chopper fleet

Santa Barbara County Fire Helicopter 308 makes a water drop during the 2009 Jesusita Fire in the Santa Barbara foothills. The helicopter, which is also used for rescues, apparently encountered mechanical difficulties when it was dispatched Sept. 14 to assist a hiker. The woman died before the aircraft’s arrival.
Santa Barbara County Fire Helicopter 308 makes a water drop during the 2009 Jesusita Fire in the Santa Barbara foothills. The helicopter, which is also used for rescues, apparently encountered mechanical difficulties when it was dispatched Sept. 14 to assist a hiker. The woman died before the aircraft’s arrival.  (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

Murmurs of discord are leaking out from personnel of the usually tight-lipped Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s and Fire departments that hint at potentially significant safety problems involving the county’s aviation unit. The aircraft handle critical services such as search and rescue and fire operations.

The problems could become an issue of public safety, brought to the forefront with the recent death of a hiker in distress on a remote Montecito trail. The 36-year-old woman died as she begged for help from 9-1-1 dispatchers while waiting for a county fire helicopter to respond.

The incident shocked the community, and Noozhawk has since received several reports detailing the aviation unit’s widening fault lines between sheriff’s and fire personnel.

As of July 1, 2012, the fire and sheriff’s departments officially consolidated their fleets in a money-saving move based on the idea that they’d share maintenance costs and would cross-train pilots and crews to respond to fire and law-enforcement calls.

The unit is now under the authority of Sheriff Bill Brown, but both Brown and county Fire Chief Michael Dyer are responsible for the administration of the agreement.

At the time, County CEO Chandra Wallar said the move could save the county as much as $270,000 a year, and the county Board of Supervisors commended the consolidation because operations would become more efficient while preserving desperately needed cash.

But all has not gone as planned. Sources say the transition hasn’t been an easy one, with a great deal of unease among frontline personnel, including some in the Fire Department who chafed at the move of the unit to the sheriff’s command.

Others say that ongoing safety problems can’t be ignored any longer.

On Tuesday, Noozhawk received an anonymous four-page letter that was signed “Concerned Professional Firefighters.” The letter began by saying that the group has been working for some time to make the public aware of its safety concerns.

“The current budget cannot safely operate the (aviation) unit and the supervisor at aviation has curtailed our training to the point we can no longer perform our jobs as professionals,” the letter states.

The firefighters maintain that they’ve filed complaints with the sheriff and have worked up their department’s chain of command, but to no avail.

Santa Barbara County Fire Helicopter 308 was one of the department's aircraft that was consolidated under the Sheriff's Department earlier this year. A group calling itself 'Concerned Professional Firefighters' has alleged that maintenance — and public safety — has suffered since the merger. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)
Santa Barbara County Fire Helicopter 308 was one of the department’s aircraft that was consolidated under the Sheriff’s Department earlier this year. A group calling itself “Concerned Professional Firefighters” has alleged that maintenance — and public safety — has suffered since the merger. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

“Our attempt to get our concerned voices out was obviously stopped by someone at either the Sheriffs Dept. or jointly by the sheriff and fire chief,” the letter states.

According to the letter, the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the county and the sheriff’s and fire departments has not been followed.

The letter asserts that joint training has not been completed, and the two Fire Department aircraft — Helicopters 308 and 309 — have not received the same level of service as the sheriff’s aircraft, with Sheriff’s Department mechanics refusing to work on the Fire Department’s helicopters.

Typically, a mechanic will be familiar with the history, condition and performance of the unit’s helicopters, and will work with the pilot to be a second set of eyes and ears for anything amiss with the aircraft.

“That is now missing for pilots and crews flying in H-308 and H-309,” the letter states.

According to the letter, the Sheriff’s Department has a memo in place prohibiting its employees and the sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team from flying on the Fire Department’s two helicopters. The letter adds that the annual combined aviation maintenance funding is inadequate to safely operate one airplane and six helicopters at approximately $146,000 a year.

The 2011-2012 Fire Department budget for its two helicopters was $120,000 and “the current budget only increased by $26,000 to maintain one additional type-2 helicopter, two type-3 helicopters and a Cessna 206.”

On Wednesday, via a conference call, Noozhawk asked Wallar, Undersheriff Jim Peterson and Deputy Fire Chief Chris Hahn for their response to the anonymous letter.

Wallar began, saying she was aware of the letter and which she said contained many “half-truths.”

“They aren’t accurate or they’re expected transition issues,” she said of the allegations.

Peterson agreed.

“It was very apparent this was going to be an evolution,” he said of the merger. “The bottom line is that we still have very good assets and personnel, and the safety of the citizenry is still paramount.”

Hahn said both departments have strived to make the consolidation work.

As for the aircraft, “If (the pilots) thought something was unsafe, they wouldn’t be flying,” he said. “The pilots have a lot of experience and they’re not going to put themselves or the public at risk.”

But while the letter from the firefighters acknowledges that fire personnel have worked diligently since the July merger to keep the program in operation, it asserts that “in an effort to save the county money, the standards we originally held have dropped to the point where we are questioning the safety of the program.”

Until those concerns can be addressed, the firefighters recommended an immediate “safety stand down” for aviation missions. They say they will continue to respond to life-threatening emergencies, but will cease all nonessential activities “to focus on how each member of the ASU (air support unit) can contribute to safe and effective operations.”

They say that no maintenance plan has been discussed for Helicopters 308 and 309, and 309 is currently out of service and waiting for the sheriff’s approval to repair a $12,000 fuel-injection problem.

Currently, they say, Helicopter 308 is the only available rescue/water-dropping helicopter and a nonrescue helicopter owned by the Sheriff’s Department is the only other one available in the county.

Maintenance schedules and personnel have not been assigned to each aircraft, according to the letter, which alleges that the leadership is proposing to discontinue online maintenance records to save money.

No operation manual has been adopted, as required under the MOU, which states that all pilots and crew chiefs must complete training, according to that document, which was obtained by Noozhawk.

There have also been days when there are no pilots available, leaving the helicopters unstaffed, the letter states. The letter notes that sheriff’s pilots and helicopters are not authorized to fly for state or federal fires — even though the memorandum of understanding between the county and the two agencies requires all crews to be cross-trained in both fire and law-enforcement missions to maximize personnel coverage and flexibility.

Peterson said the goal is to cross-train all the crews, but having the aircraft available during fire season and enough personnel to conduct the training have been issues.

“We have a ways to go on this,” he said.

As established in the MOU, air missions are to be prioritized for protection or saving of human life, and protections of personal property and/or valuable natural resources.

The firefighters’ letter cites the July 4 drowning of an 8-year-old boy in the Santa Ynez River. During the response to the incident, sheriff’s officers allegedly canceled a dispatch for Helicopter 308, which was equipped for a water rescue, while their own Helicopter 2 did not have the equipment or staff needed for the operation.

The body of Edwin Jijada of Oxnard was pulled from a river pool near the Live Oak day-use area off Paradise Road in Los Padres National Forest about 45 minutes after he disappeared while on a family outing.

“An AMR unit from Santa Barbara responded,” the letter stated, resulting in delayed treatment for the victim because paramedics could not get to the boy in time.

A CALSTAR air ambulance also responded but the helicopter did not have hoist capabilities, forcing it to land at a distance from the scene and further delaying the emergency response.

“This has been a recurring issue that has not been addressed,” the letter states.

Nicole Peters
Nicole Peters

Magnifiying the issue was the Sept. 14 death of Nicole Peters on the Romero Canyon Trail above Montecito. Her death — as well as the Jijada drowning — calls into question what response time should be expected. According to the county’s MOU, helicopters are to be available seven days a week, eight hours a day for immediate response.

“For purposes of this agreement, the phrase ‘immediate response’ shall mean the helicopter is in flight within 10 minutes of dispatch,” the document states.

In the Peters case, almost 40 minutes passed from the time she requested assistance to when Helicopter 308 was recorded to be en route, according to dispatch records obtained by Noozhawk.

Even the terse dispatch log provides a heartbreaking glimpse into the timeline, with Peters begging to be rescued before eventually dying on the trail with her three dogs by her side.

The transcript records the first call coming in at 12:52 p.m. that Friday, during which Peters reports that she is two miles from the top of East Camino Cielo on the Romero Canyon Trail. The dispatcher makes an entry that Peters is suffering from either dehydration or a heart attack.

Peters can’t move her arms or her legs, the dispatcher notes, and four minutes into the call she is “begging for a helicopter,” the records show. GPS coordinates are registered from Peters’ cell phone, and Search and Rescue personnel are paged. At 12:57 p.m., a helicopter is requested.

At 1:01 p.m., the records say that Helicopter 308 has been dispatched, but the next mention of the aircraft is 20 minutes later, at 1:19 p.m., when the records say 308 is “unable to respond due to communication failure” and the Montecito Fire Department is instructed to request assistance from Ventura County.

The Ventura County Fire Department responds several minutes later, and, at 1:33 p.m., the record states that Helicopter 308 is also en route, but from the Santa Ynez Airport. Ventura County subsequently cancels its flight.

At 1:42 p.m., with Helicopter 308 still not having arrived at the scene, the dispatcher reports that there is only silence on Peters’ end of the call but for the sound of her dogs barking.

“Patient appears to have possibly gone unconscious,” the report states. “For the last 45 mins., the patient has been grunting, screaming and thrashing around. Nothing heard at this point.”

At 2:08 p.m., the helicopter crew spots Peters, and at 2:14 p.m. a paramedic is dropped to the ground. But the paramedic could only confirm that Peters had died.

After reviewing the dispatch logs, Noozhawk is seeking more information on the Sept. 14 equipment failure of Helicopter 308. Noozhawk has made a California Public Records Act request for the maintenance logs and reports that document the servicing of the Fire Department’s aircraft, as well as mechanical failures and repairs on Helicopter 308 since July 1, when the joint command agreement became effective.

The Sheriff’s Department will have 10 days to respond to Noozhawk’s request.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

comments powered by Disqus

» on 10.11.12 @ 11:41 AM

Tragic. I can’t even imagine how distraught the family is after learning about why their loved one couldn’t be rescued sooner. The amount of money the county talks about saving by consolidating the fleets is minuscule in the big picture. Once again, spending cuts in the wrong places, while tons of money gets wasted elsewhere.

» on 10.11.12 @ 12:08 PM

Quite a breaking story this morning.  Over an hour to reach that woman?  Seriously, I’ve hiked that trail many times.  Montecito Fire could have driven up the Edison road to within two miles of where she was and hiked in faster than that helicopter arrived.

As tragic as this is, nobody should expect quick ER when out of urban areas.  But it begs the question: does the government set clear expectations with the public as to the level of service they can realistically provide?  Nice work Noozhawk.  Stay on the story.

» on 10.11.12 @ 12:25 PM

So, instead of spending money on maintenance, we’ll spend it on lawsuits.

Get your priorities straght, gentlemen. Sounds like there’s a lot of pettiness and false pride involved here.

» on 10.11.12 @ 12:29 PM

Wow. Talk about throwing mud at a wall to see what sticks!? Perhaps a story JUST about the hiking incident and response would make sense…but to conflate it with anonymous discontent from “professional” firefighterrs who FOR YEARS have been bitter about sharing aviation duties with anyone (Sherrif, EMS, CalSTR) diminishes the credibility of this story.

» on 10.11.12 @ 12:49 PM

A communication error caused a 40 min delay?

What on earth could that possibly be… sounds like human error to me..

Listen to the folks who work with these agencies - they are probably speaking the truth.  Remember that there is a huge amount of animosity between the agencies due to huge pay discrepancies and the general temperament of middle manager civil servants who think they’re smarter and more capable then they are…We all know the type…. and they are embedded in the law and fire agencies.

As for the rescue:  Why the MFD does not have motorcycles and or ATVs for these rescues is beyond me.  Any decent rider could have gotten up to her position on a cycle in 10min from East Valley Rd on a dirt bike.  Makes no sense to not use the best devices possible for Search and Rescue - a helicopter costs millions while a good bike is thousands…

» on 10.11.12 @ 12:49 PM

Wow!!  Tragic and truly eye-opening.  Thank you Noozhawk for being on this and doing some great investigative work.  Hopefully you get to the bottom of this - or at least the pressure of the investigation forces some real changes…

» on 10.11.12 @ 03:15 PM

How about some fiscal perspective here.

The County BOS about 3 weeks ago voted for over $14.0 Millon Dollars in social services…most being “give me’s” for political correctness.  They added a whole bunch of new job slots at the tune of $5.0+ Million Dollars in that vote.

So for a lousy $126,000 for maintenance and some training a woman is DEAD?

Brown has been very good at dancing the political dance but more and more officers as well as the public are becoming more disenchanted with this man.  It is becoming clear it might be time for a change.

» on 10.11.12 @ 06:44 PM

I agree about the dirt bike angle. Keep two of them somewhere strategic, and train a couple of firefighters and/or deputies. Have a medical Go-Pack at the ready for a quick response where appropriate. Once on scene, these forward response guys/gals could do assessment and call for whatever else they may need, or guide aero in. I like the idea. Let’s get this done.

» on 10.11.12 @ 07:24 PM

It’s been almost a month, and I have not read what the actual cause of death was. An apparently healthy and fit young woman experiences a fatal episode of some kind and we all assume she could have been saved. Maybe.

I have to say that the Search and Rescue people in this town are exemplary. Helicopters are not safe vehicles, and it seems that most of the times SAR goes out in one it’s for hikers that will not take an adult level of responsibility for their own safety. A case like this one, however, where helicopter extraction was actually needed, has to exist side-by-side in the same failure probability pool with all the unnecessary trips. Whatever the fault.

I don’t know what killed her, but I have known two very fit young people who died suddenly - one from an allergic reaction, the other from a massive heart attack. Neither one had any idea of the threat hanging over them. If you are physically active, it’s a good idea to get regular checkups and a stress echocardiogram. If you have an underlying problem it may be relatively easy to treat, or at least prepare for.

And all outdoors enthusiasts should get the best first aid training they can afford. If nothing else, it may help you describe your own symptoms better and speed up the effective response of SAR personnel.

» on 10.12.12 @ 08:40 PM

Responsibility for Nicole’s death can be placed squarely on the head of the Sheriff’s Department and Search & Rescue. Such a delay in response time is unconscionable. She was still alive well within a reasonable response time. The very least the people of Santa Barbara can expect is that a rescue helicopter stands prepared at all times. The time to discover a malfunction is not while on the way to save a life.

The comment from Peterson that “It was very apparent this was going to be an evolution,” is outside the standards of common decency and compassion. He is saying that lives will be (and in fact have been) lost while differences are worked out.

This story is heartbreaking and were it not for the bumbling of the Sheriff’s Dept, an incredible young woman would still be with us. My most sincere and heartfelt condolences go out to her family and friends.

» on 10.12.12 @ 11:20 PM

I witnessed this incident. On July 4 2012 Los Padres National Forest Service Fire Fighters and Forest Service personnel were patrolling the lower Santa Ynez River Recreation area as it was expected that there would be many visitors to the recreation area. A Forest Service vehicle just happened to be driving near the Live Oak Day Use area when the 8 year old boy had gone missing. At first the family did not know if the boy had gone under the water or had wandered off. Santa Barbara County Dispatch and Forest Service Dispatch were contacted and at the time a Sheriff’s Helicopter was already in the air, Copter 308 was not. Los Padres Fire Engines #42 and #43 and a Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Mountain Patrol unit responded to the incident and arrived on scene within minutes. Approximately 8 Los Padres National Forest Service Firefighters and other swimmers were actively searching the swimming hole that was approximately 20 feet deep, about 75 yards long and the water was very murky. The Sheriff’s Helicopter already being in the air was instructed to search the area in case the boy had wandered away, which later turned out not to be the case. Los Padres National Forest Service Firefighters are far better trained in water rescues, life saving training and rescues in the front and back country. Copter 308 would not have aided in the rescue as the 8 year old boy had already been in the water for approx 25 minutes once recovered. Once the boy was pulled out of the water CPR was immediately performed by Forest Service Fire Fighters as well as other life saving methods, but the boy had been under water for too long. Within 30 seconds of the boy being pulled from the water AMR arrived on scene and continued life saving efforts, CALSTAR then arrived on scene and they too performed life saving efforts but to no avail. County Fire was the last agency on scene. The 8 year old boy drowning was truly a unfortunate turn of events but Copter 308 would not have been able to save the 8 year old from drowning or recovering the boy any sooner.

» on 10.13.12 @ 01:18 AM

I was at the July 4 drowning near the Live Oak Day Use area. Copter 308 would not have been able to locate the boy as the boy was submerged in very deep and murky water. Los Padres National Forest Firefighters as well as a Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department Mountain patrol unit were on scene within minutes. Approx. 8 Forest Service Firefighters as well as other swimmers began searching for the boy. The Sheriff’s helicopter was already in the air, copter 308 was not and searched the area as the parents of the boy thought the boy may have wandered away. When Forest Service Firefighters pulled the boy from the water, having been under more than 25 minutes they performed CPR and other life saving procedures, then AMR arrived on scene and took over. CALSTAR was next to arrive and County Fire was last.

» on 10.13.12 @ 12:32 PM

Lessons I learned from this very thoughtful dialog on which Noozhawk forum has allowed:
Always buddy-up when hiking; closely supervise your kids when around water; common sense is the first line of defense; you never know what actually happened unless you were there; rescue personal are well trained and experienced but aren’t superhuman; and their input should be listened to more closely by administrators when budget cuts are being considered with emergency rescue issues; county government sometimes makes stupid decisions that strongly affect peoples’ lives.

» on 10.14.12 @ 02:59 PM

By design, Sheriff Bill Brown is in charge of this mess and he is responsible for the lingering rivalry between Fire and Sheriff personnel.  Sheriff Brown also is elected and this mess has now become a leadership issue for him.

If the helicopter ops, including firefighting air ops, are now under the domain of the Sheriff as the County department head, all the employees involved should move over to the Sheriff Department, receive proper training, and let the hidden hand of the chain of command do its magic.

» on 10.15.12 @ 01:55 PM

Francie Nolan…you do realize that SAR personnel are volunteers, right?  That they aren’t sitting around waiting for a call?  That their holidays, weekends, family events and nights are regularly interrputed to respond to a call? They are just normal people who dedicate a part of their lives to helping others in need? They aren’t compensated and routinely spend a huge amount of their personal money and time to be a volunteer.  Please keep this in mind in the future if you wish to denigrate this fine (and highly trained) group.

» on 10.15.12 @ 05:42 PM

It continues to disturb me that after all this time and money spent these departments continue to work so ineffectively and inefficiently re the helicopter issue, and it appears that people are dying as a result. Ventura County has had a jointly-operated Fire/Sheriff helicopter operation for decades now, and all SB County has to do is drive a few miles south and see how it’s been done for a long time. I’m disgusted at both departments, and I think the problem starts at the top in both agencies. Enough is enough, guys. Public confidence in both agencies is eroding because of this.

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