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Santa Barbara County Still Facing Challenges in Consolidation of Air Unit

Facing significant expenses, the unit moves to combine fire and sheriff’s aviation resources to save money

Under the banner simul nos succedunt — Latin for “together we succeed” — Santa Barbara County’s Air Support Unit has been working for the past seven months to combine fire and sheriff’s department air resources into one as a cost-saving measure for the cash-strapped county.

But that motto may be more aspirational than actual, at least for the time being, as the unit has run into significant — and unexpected — cost challenges with two of its helicopters.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors heard about how the consolidation is going and received an update on the aircraft. The combined unit contains six helicopters, four from the Sheriff’s Department and helicopters 308 and 309 from the Fire Department.

Fire Chief Mike Dyer and Undersheriff Jim Peterson attended Tuesday’s meeting and said that both departments have been implementing the terms and policies of the MOU since last July.

Earlier this year, Noozhawk reported that extensive repairs on one helicopter were expected to cost as much as the fleet’s entire maintenance budget for the year.

Helicopter 308 has been out of service since last November, and a routine inspection revealed dozens of problems, including a troubled power turbine intake, fuel intake valves and others.

The aircraft came under scrutiny last year after the chopper’s communication equipment temporarily could not be reached during the rescue of hiker Nicole Peters, who later died before rescuers could reach her.

In addition to the equipment problems, records also have been an issue with Helicopter 308, and serial numbers on the parts had not been recorded properly, so finding the correct parts has cost more time and money than planned, Peterson said.

Repairs are also needed for Copter 4, and the repairs for both aircraft put the unit $225,000 over its adopted budget for the year.

Peterson said the department thinks it can cover the cost, and is developing next year’s budget based on minimum mandatory flight hours.

In addition to helicopters 4 and 308, Peterson also walked through the condition of each of the six helicopters to which the unit has access.

Copters one and two are in service, awaiting “carding,” a term that means the aircraft can be used by Cal-Fire and the Forest Service for firefighting and be reimbursed. Copter 3, unveiled last year to much fanfare, is the newly refurbished helicopter that has been carded and is available for all missions. Peterson said Copter 309 is also undergoing repairs and should be online in three to four weeks.

County Supervisor Peter Adam on Tuesday called for an appraisal of what Helicopter 308 and its parts are worth. Adam asked staff earlier this year to calculate whether it makes financial sense to retire aircraft or continue fixing them.

On the staffing side of the consolidation, the Air Support Unit currently has nine full-time employees, including a manager, two pilots, a sheriff’s deputy pilot, two crew chiefs and another senior deputy, and two full-time mechanics.

Before the consolidation, there were 12 full-time employees, “so it’s lowered the cost,” Peterson said.

Over the past seven months, the unit responded to 18 fire calls where water was dropped, 180 law enforcement operations, and 23 search and rescue operations, Peterson said.

ASU Lt. Bob Mott has been busy combining the two department’s operations manuals — an “arduous task,” according to Peterson — and the sheriff and fire chief are expected to sign off on the manual in the next few weeks.

Because the helicopters are staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week, aircraft availability is a problem when they’re “constantly being placed in and out of service,” Mott said, adding that the department is working hard to bring back Copters 4 and 308.

Peterson said the department is asking for $298,000 for a deferred maintenance fund, which would make for a $2.3 million budget for next year.

“To plan for the unplanned, we’d like to put some money away,” he said. Training has been going well and all of the full-time pilots are now cross-trained, Peterson said, “but it also never ends.”

The department also would like to train additional crew chiefs and pilots so that more staff are available to rotate, he said.

Attorney Marc Chytilo was the only speaker during public comment Tuesday, who asked that the Sheriff’s Department follow Calstar’s lead in purchasing quieter helicopters to land on Cottage Hospital’s roof helipad.

Peterson said the department does follow Cottage’s protocols and has landed on the roof only four to six times since last July.

“When we do it’s a lifesaving measure,” he said.

The county supervisors were complimentary of the progress the group has made thus far.

After his first meeting with the ASU last year, Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he “wasn’t sure we would get to this place,” but commended both fire and sheriff for working together.

Supervisor Janet Wolf encouraged the units to finish their operations manual and commended their work so far.

“It’s very difficult, we knew that going in,” she said. “But I think we’re making progress.”

Board chair Salud Carbajal agreed.

“We have a seamless, effective emergency response,” he told Dyer and Peterson. “I appreciate all the good work you have done.”

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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