In light of a debate between the Orange County Fire Authority and Sheriff’s Department over which should be the lead agency on search-and-rescue calls, a grand jury report released Friday called on the county to create a permanent “air operations safety council.”
The report also called on the two agencies to work together, with the sheriff’s department being the lead response agency to wilderness or remote off-road search-and-rescue calls, and the OCFA taking the lead on urban search-and-rescue calls.
Officials from both agencies issued a response insisting that they “are working collaboratively to provide a dual-agency response to search-and-rescue calls.”
The OCFA and sheriff’s department have occasionally found themselves at loggerheads over the past year over search-and-rescue events, with both at times dispatching helicopters to scenes and arguments erupting among the responders over which is the lead agency.
The grand jury report found that such “duplication of effort” has led to “potential safety risks, as both agencies often act independently and without coordination to execute (search-and-rescues).” The two agencies also often don’t communicate properly with each other at scenes, leading to helicopters operating in dangerously close proximity.
“Safety and other concerns become magnified when multiple county and city agency helicopters operate in the narrow altitude corridor between 600 and 1,200 feet,” according to the report. “Public safety demands that this situation — competition versus collaboration — be immediately rectified.”
The report chiefly recommends that the Board of Supervisors create “an ongoing regional council in collaboration with all city and county public agency air units, such as an Orange County air operations safety council, tasked with addressing these issues.”
It also recommends that OCFA and the sheriff’s department adhere to a Board of Supervisors resolution identifying the sheriff’s department as the lead agency on wilderness rescue calls. The report also suggests the sheriff’s department consider relocating its Air Unit to the OCFA facility at Fullerton Airport, “where the county’s public agency aviation units can leverage each other’s resources, reduce operating costs and forge improved collaborative working relationships.” The grand jury also suggested that OCFA paramedics consider operating jointly with the sheriff’s department helicopter units.
“Ultimately, the county’s public agency aviation units should evaluate the potential benefits of centralizing into one aviation support organization led by an experienced aviator-manager, in order to maximize safety and effectiveness and reduce unnecessary costs,” the report states.
The OCFA and sheriff’s department issued a joint statement in response to the report, insisting the agencies are working together.
“Since formal mediation was completed in December 2017, both agencies have been meeting regularly, without mediation or intermediaries, and are close to an agreement that addresses the majority of the recommendations made in the grand jury report,” according to the agencies.
OCFA Chief Brian Fennessy said his agency is “committed to continuing our collaboration with our partners at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. We share the same mission, which is to provide the very best service to the people of Orange County.”
Sheriff Sandra Hutches echoed those comments.
“I’m encouraged by our recent conversations, and have no doubt that the safety of our community will be enhanced with continued teamwork,” she said. “Air operations are increasingly becoming a necessary tool to address both natural and man-made public safety threats.”
The agencies plan to issue a formal response to the report within 60 days.
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