Photo by John Schreiber.

Alarmed by a continuing feud between the Sheriff’s Department and Orange County Fire Authority over helicopter search-and-rescue operations, the county Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to ask for the state’s help to mediate a settlement.

Orange County Fire Authority Interim Chief Patrick McIntosh told supervisors his agency will ignore Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ recent assertion of authority over helicopter responses to search-and-rescue operations. Hutchens said she has the legal authority to take over responses to such operations, but McIntosh said his agency believes otherwise.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who serves on the Orange County Fire Authority’s board, said McIntosh’s statement was “very, very dangerous,” because “it doesn’t change anything about two agencies racing to calls, and that’s not good for our county.”

County Counsel Leon Page told supervisors that the fire authority could potentially commit a crime if its helicopters interfere with a sheriff’s department helicopter response to a search-and-rescue call.

“This is a very, very serious issue,” Page said.

The board directed Page to notify state officials of the standoff.

“I think it’s imperative to notify them and ask for their advice,” Spitzer said. “I think Mr. Page needs to notify the state agency that oversees public safety.”

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who serves on an ad hoc committee with Spitzer that is working on the dispute, said he was at a loss who to notify to help settle the dispute and suggested at some point contacting the Federal Aviation Administration.

Referring to a recent dispute at Irvine Regional Park in which one helicopter pilot was accused of intruding into the air space of the other agency’s helicopter, Nelson said, “A civilian pilot would be grounded. … These pilots would be grounded and licenses would be revoked.”

The dispute has been brewing since last year, with both sides quarrelling over which agency has the lead on air search-and-rescue calls. It boiled over last week when Hutchens declared the sheriff would be the “primary provider for remote-area search-and-rescue missions.”

Fire Authority officials responded that their agency, which is a separate governmental entity from the county, does not have to adhere to the sheriff’s declaration.

McIntosh said the sheriff should continue long-term search-and-rescue missions for missing people or, for example, cases when an uninjured hiker gets lost. If there’s a medical emergency, the fire authority should take the lead, he said.

“We’re continuing to dispatch to remote rescues” to assess whether a land or air rescue is necessary, McIntosh said. “That’s what our counsel has recommended.”

He said for Hutchens to “unilaterally” proclaim that her agency is “taking over things that the fire authority has been doing successfully for the past 20 years is wrong.”

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who also serves on the fire authority board, said the sheriff and fire authority should accept some sort of binding mediation that results in a recommendation from an expert that both sides must accept.

“We need something more along the lines of binding arbitration,” Bartlett said.  “We can’t just take our bat and ball and go home. … We need to come up with a program that works in the long term.”

Hutchens denied that her department was “rushing to calls,” noting that her helicopters are always in the air and in the best position to get to an emergency faster than the fire authority, which only launches its helicopters when summoned.

“If we’re not available or have an extended response we will certainly call on other resources in the county,” Hutchens said.

She said her office is willing to continue with mediation, but said she issued her proclamation because “I thought the safest thing to do was to delineate a clear line.”

—City News Service

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