Orange County

Sheriff's Department Accused of Poaching Fire Rescue Calls

Orange County Sheriff's Department helicopters have been poaching rescue calls sent to the Fire Authority for several months in a costly and potentially dangerous turf war, officials said.

Pilots from the two departments bickered and a sheriff's pilot ignored direct orders to stand off during two rescues on April 29, the Orange County Register reported Friday.

"It has to be resolved before there's a terrible incident," county Supervisor Todd Spitzer said.

In the latest confrontation, helicopters from both departments arrived in Laguna Beach to airlift a drunken 17-year-old boy from a sea cave.

The incident commander in charge of the operation told the sheriff's pilot "you are not requested" and declared the pilot was creating "an unsafe air operation," according to recorded radio chatter cited by the Register.

A dispatcher told a fire official: "It sounds like the sheriffs have gone rogue."

The sheriff's pilot eventually responded: "We're going to do whatever is best to not delay patient care" and rescued the youth.

A sheriff's helicopter also answered a medical assistance call to the fire department that same day in Orange and conducted the operation despite a direct order not to interfere, the paper said.

The Sheriff's Department is investigating the Laguna Beach incident, spokesman Lt. Lane Lagaret said. He declined to comment on why sheriff's pilots are responding to fire calls.

Uncoordinated responses by helicopters from different agencies potentially pose a danger to the pilots and those on the ground. In 1987, helicopters from Costa Mesa and Newport Beach police departments collided while responding to a police chase. Three people in the Costa Mesa chopper died.

Spitzer said he has met several times with the sheriff and fire chief to discuss the issue, but the problem continues.

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens believes her crews respond more quickly than fire helicopters, Spitzer said.

The Sheriff's Department has five helicopters and the Orange County Fire Authority has four.

Sheriff's helicopters used to handle mainly non-rescue searches, while the fire choppers performed rescues but under a collaboration agreement, each can handle patrol or rescue duties "if need be," fire Battalion Chief Dave Spencer said.

Recently, the Sheriff's Department trained its helicopter crews to offer medical aid.

"It's so tense between the two agencies," Spitzer added. "But we are aware of it and asking the agencies to work it out."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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