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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

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.

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