The Anaheim City Council last week approved the purchase of a new $2.2 million Cessna airplane for the police department that seats a maximum of 14 and has a range of nearly 1,200 nautical miles.
City officials said the plane is needed to replace a helicopter that is 12 years old, which they say is its retirement age, and to serve as an aerial command and control center during major wildfires. There are questions, however, about whether these justifications for such an expense hold up to scrutiny.
Helicopter manufacturers and officials from other public safety agencies say helicopters can keep operating for decades as long as they are well maintained. The Orange County Fire Authority, for example, has two helicopters that were built in 1966.
And research shows the types of fires for which Anaheim officials say the plane would be used usually occur in wilderness areas.
There were three major blazes near Anaheim in the latter half of the 20th century, according to a city document that analyzes fire defense. The then historical rate for Anaheim Hills — the eastern part of the city that borders wildland — was one major incident every 15 years, the document shows.
The last big wildfire to hit Anaheim was the 2008 Freeway Complex Fire, which burned more than 30,000 acres in four counties and damaged or destroyed more than 381 buildings, according to a Fire Authority report. The fire eventually spread into Anaheim Hills.
Anaheim Police Sgt. Bob Dunn said the plane, the Grand Caravan 208B, could have been an important asset in fighting the Freeway Complex Fire. It could have conducted long-distance reconnaissance using infrared camera technology, he said.
Fire Authority spokesman Kris Concepcion said he doesn't believe that Anaheim officials consulted with the authority before purchasing the plane. While he couldn't comment on whether Anaheim's use of the plane during the Freeway Complex Fire would have extinguished the blaze sooner, he pointed out that at its height, 4,000 firefighters were involved and, according to the authority report, 17 helicopters and 16 fixed-wing airplanes took park in the effort.
One of the main reasons Anaheim needs the larger plane is to carry top firefighting officials during reconnaissance missions for large fires, said Dunn. While the plane seats as many as 14, Anaheim's plane will be outfitted to seat nine passengers, he said. “Obviously, they're [firefighting officials] the experts, so they could decide on deployment and decide what resources to send where,” he said.
Dunn said he couldn't comment on how many officials would be needed for such reconnaissance missions. It would depend on the conditions of the fire, he said.
During major wildfires, the Fire Authority may send up one high-ranking official to determine where the fire is headed and in what direction it should be attacked, Concepcion said. But, he added, officials in a helicopter that is dropping water on the fire can also do such aerial observation. Infrared mapping missions are contracted out to private vendors, he said.
Plane purchases by cities and counties are not unheard of. San Mateo County last month bought a Cessna 206 airplane that officials there say will be used for reconnaissance. But San Mateo's new plane holds fewer passengers and had a much smaller sticker price, coming in at $713,744.
Dave Schwartz, commander of the San Mateo sheriff's air squad, praised the Grand Caravan as a “wonderful airplane” that “can carry a lot of people, a lot of equipment, and can go in rugged areas.” But, he said, “it's just too expensive for us.”
Having a larger plane like the Grand Caravan, Schwartz said, would be useful for transporting teams of public officials.
In both San Mateo and Anaheim the money to buy the planes came from special funds from cash and other assets seized during drug raids. By law, the public entities can only spend this money on police equipment.
In addition to the airplane's purchase price, Anaheim will be spending $400,000 on equipment and accessories, a staff report states.
The City Council approved the purchase in a unanimous vote, and council members said it was a prudent move.
“Apparently the technology has changed so much in recent years that it is much more cost-effective to fly a fixed-wing aircraft,” said Councilwoman Gail Eastman. “They [police department officials] just made a very good case for it.”
There are benefits from airplanes over helicopters. They cost about one-third to operate per hour, can stay in the air longer and are quieter, city officials say. The city in 2007 relocated its helicopter fleet to a hangar at Fullerton Municipal Airport because, among other reasons, it wanted to eventually replace some of the fleet with airplanes, according to Deputy Chief Craig Hunter.
The larger airplane also has a different engine that already matches tools and other equipment Anaheim has on hand, Dunn said. Buying another plane with a different engine would require the purchase of new tools and equipment, he said.
Two Fire Authority helicopters, while only used as relief vehicles, are more than 50 years old, decades older than the 12-year-old helicopter Anaheim officials say has reached the end of its useable life. The authority purchased the Vietnam-era Hueys in the mid-1990s and spent a total of $1.6 million to refurbish both so they could be outfitted for firefighting missions, Concepcion said.
In a presentation to the Anaheim council last week, Hunter said that a city-owned MD 500 helicopter is “timed out,” which in helicopter parlance means it needs only certain maintenance, such as replacing helicopter components — a fact Hunter did not explain during the meeting.
When asked if the helicopter was at “retirement age,” Dunn said that the “short answer” was yes. He then also acknowledged that helicopters don't truly reach retirement age and can be maintained by replacing parts.
Dunn maintained that the Police Department chose to replace the helicopter now so it can be sold at a high price rather than years later when the auction price for helicopter would be significantly lower.
“There is a return on investment. If you keep a helicopter for 30 years and try to sell it, you're probably not going to get as much money for it,” Dunn said.
Voice of OC intern Brendan Wiles also contributed to this article.