Saturday, November 1, 2014     Volume: 15, Issue: 34
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Santa Maria Sun / Breaking News


Firefighters raise concerns about Santa Barbara County's helicopter rescue program

Amy Asman
An anonymous letter sent to local media by a group of "concerned professional firefighters" is raising some concerns about Santa Barbara County's emergency aviation unit, a joint program between the sheriff's and fire departments. The departments officially consolidated their helicopter fleets back in July to save the county money on maintenance and training costs. Sheriff Bill Brown now oversees the aviation unit in collaboration with Fire Chief Michael Dyer. Both men have lauded the program, as well as the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. Some people, however, don't view the merge as a success. According to the letter, "The current [aviation unit] budget cannot safely operate the unit and the supervisor at aviation has curtailed our training to the point [that] we can no longer perform our jobs as professionals." The letter goes on to list a number of alleged grievances with the new program: • The memorandum of understanding between the two departments, it said, "Has not been followed as agreed upon. Joint training has not been completed and aircraft have not been available as stipulated." • One of the two helicopters, the letter claims, isn't currently in service. • "Fire helicopters do not receive the same level of service as the Sheriff aircraft." • The letter also claims training hours have been reduced and that there has been little to no interaction between Sheriff's employees and personnel at Fire Station No. 32. "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," the letter said, and called for a Safety Stand Down for aviation missions. A Safety Stand Down, it said, is a time for all crewmembers to step back and identify how they can improve the safety of the program. In an interview with the Sun, Dyer said, "There are two aircraft available and both of them are safe." The letter, he said, "is unfortunate because it has a lot of half truths and falsehoods." According to Dyer, both he and the sheriff have been made aware of issues with the program as they come along, and have worked together to resolve them. He said a lot of the issues in the letter have already been resolved. Additionally, he said, the firefighters union and sheriff's and fire departments addressed many of the issues in the letter during a meeting earlier this month. "[The letter] is just disappointing because we're working really hard to make this [program] happen and we're dedicated to making it happen," Dyer said. The functionality of the aviation unit came into question recently when a 36-year-old woman died while hiking on a remote trail in Montecito. Dyer said a communications malfunction required the department to call for backup from Ventura, which delayed the rescue by approximately 20 minutes. The crewmembers also had difficulty locating the woman once they arrived because she was hidden under some brush. He admitted that equipment malfunctions can sometimes prevent professionals from saving someone's life, but said, "You can count on one hand the number of instances like that that have happened in the last five years." The Sheriff's Department is expected to release a joint statement with the fire department soon. Sheriff's Department officials could not be reached for comment as of press time.