The Orange County Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority announced Wednesday the agencies have resolved an ongoing feud over protocol for responding to emergencies via helicopter.
The dispute had been brewing since last year and came to a head following a critical Orange County grand jury report in June about the conflict.
The agencies have put in writing a protocol that will put the sheriff in charge on search-and-rescue and crime calls, and the fire authority as the lead on medical rescues.
But the agreement is flexible, said Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who also serves on the fire authority board.
“It’s more who gets there first takes the lead and then they sort it out later,” Spitzer said. “The idea is to have some written understandings so we have protocols in place, but at the same time it’s not so rigid that it will usurp cooperation.”
The agreement is “an acknowledgement that enough is enough, this nonsense is jeopardizing public safety and this cannot continue to go on,” Spitzer said.
Orange County Board Chairman Andrew Do said the agreement marks “a great day for public safety in Orange County. It’s wonderful to see our top two public safety agencies being able to work together so well for the betterment of the county.”
The county has “a very diverse landscape in our county, which requires various types of emergency responses, and the more coordination we have, the more flexible we can be in serving the public,” Do said.
Officials from both agencies had been trying to negotiate an agreement since last year, when it was discovered there was no official protocol in place. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and then-Fire Chief Jeff Bowman told the Board of Supervisors in August of last year that they couldn’t reach an agreement and needed a mediator.
The supervisors told them to keep working on an agreement, but the dispute flared up again over the initial response to Canyon Fire 2 last October as a sheriff’s helicopter crew claimed they were rebuffed when they offered to drop water on the blaze as it ignited.
Part of the problem in the past negotiations was that officials “were narrowly defining the response to a call,” Do said, such as when is a patient is handed off to the fire authority for a trip to a hospital.
Now the sheriff can rush a patient to a hospital if the department’s personnel get to an emergency first, Do said.
“Everyone is going to go back to doing the job they were sworn to do,” Spitzer said. “We can’t have first responders running into danger creating more danger than the danger they’re responding to. It doesn’t matter the color of the helicopter or what it says on the side. The public expects swift and immediate services.”
Spitzer praised sheriff’s deputies and firefighters for working smoothly together on the massive Holy Fire that began in Orange County’s Holy Jim Canyon and burned into Riverside County.
“When you see a stream of helicopters making a circle pattern and filling up with water in Irvine Lake, for example, and it’s both fire and sheriff working seamlessly together, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work,” Spitzer said.
Spitzer hopes that in the future, the firefighters and deputies will centralize their helicopter launch at John Wayne Airport so they can coordinate and train together. The fire authority’s helicopter is based out of Fullerton Airport, but that can be kept as a backup, Spitzer said.
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