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An ongoing dispute between the county Sheriff’s Department and Fire Authority over helicopter rescues is escalating, after an agreement between both sides fell apart and county supervisors sided with the Sheriff’s Department, giving it joint responsibility with the Fire Authority for rescuing people in remote areas.

Fire Authority officials say they’ve been performing air rescues for over 20 years and are well-equipped for the job, but that in recent years sheriff’s helicopter crews have been racing to the scene and taking control. The Fire Authority says that causes confusion on the ground, expensive duplication of efforts, and a risk of mid-air collisions.

“The last thing we want is to have two helicopters collide in the air because there’s an air dispute over who got there first or whose jurisdiction it is,” said Marc Stone, a battalion commander and spokesman for the Fire Authority.

“They’ll just come right in and take over the whole thing,” he said of the sheriff’s helicopter crews. “What is happening now is causing such a divide” between the two agencies.

The Sheriff’s Department, meanwhile, says their involvement is important because Fire Authority helicopters are sometimes out of the county assisting with other emergencies, and that the Fire Authority simply doesn’t want the Sheriff’s Department doing any medical emergency work. Fire Authority helicopters have paramedics onboard and the sheriff’s helicopter crews now include paramedics who can assist with medical treatment while patients are being flown to the hospital.

After meeting dozens of times about the issue, a new agreement was reached last month in which the two agencies would take turns on alternate weeks being in charge of air rescues across the county.

But the Fire Authority’s board rejected it, instead wanting to maintain an existing agreement from March 2016 that has sheriff’s officials handle searches and the Fire Authority handle rescues.

Sheriff’s officials wanted a different approach. Last week, they proposed a new plan that defines both agencies as equal when it comes to the main kind of airlift at issue: off-road rescues in which the location of the person is known.

After a contentious debate at Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting, and strong support from the sheriff’s deputies’ influential union, supervisors approved the sheriff-requested plan on a unanimous vote.

County supervisors are involved in the issue because under state law, they decide whether the Sheriff’s Department has authority to conduct search and rescue operations. The supervisors also set overall policy for when sheriff’s crews conduct rescues.

Tuesday’s decision is essentially a policy change that officially puts the sheriff’s helicopter crews on equal footing with the Fire Authority as being the lead agency when responding to off-road medical emergencies, without clarity about who should handle the calls.

The supervisors’ action seemed to only escalate tensions.

The supervisors’ lead attorney, Leon Page, had offered a menu of ideas for how to diffuse the tensions. They included having his County Counsel’s office hire a trusted mediator, like a retired judge, to listen to both sides and offer recommendations for how to resolve the dispute.

Those ideas were publicly supported by Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Fire Chief Jeff Bowman.

Hutchens said she likes the idea of some type of third party mediator, because trying to continue talks without it “would be a waste of time.” Bowman agreed.

The mediation idea was also supported by Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Lisa Bartlett. But the rest of the five-member board didn’t support an outside mediator.

Supervisor Andrew Do, whose election last year was supported by $100,000 in deputies’ union campaign spending, said supervisors should be in charge of studying the helicopter issue, deciding the facts, and determining how the departments use search and rescue helicopters. He said the board should use a closed-door process involving two of the five supervisors, known as an ad-hoc committee.

Spitzer and Bartlett pushed back strongly.

“I mean, two supervisors as an ad-hoc…in my opinion, is not a good idea,” Spitzer said of Do’s proposal for the helicopter dispute. “I don’t think two supervisors should play that role.”

Bartlett noted both agencies want to go through a mediation process, and urged her colleagues to give a directive about entering mediation.

Without clear guidelines in place, Bartlett said, “we are putting everybody at risk,” including the Fire Authority, sheriff’s officials, and the public.

“It would be a huge black eye on every agency and the County of Orange if we do not provide clear direction” on how this should proceed, she said.

But Bartlett’s motion was not supported by a majority of the board, so there was no direction to hire a mediator.

The supervisors’ discussion got heated at points, with Supervisor Shawn Nelson interrupting Page and questioning him for trying to explain the difference between arbitration, mediation, and fact-finding.

Nelson, meanwhile, said supervisors can help ensure the issue is dealt with by threatening to rescind the new agreement if both sides don’t work out the issues in the next 30 days.

“The fact of the matter is, if they don’t resolve it, we do have options. One of ‘em is just to rescind the very [resolution] we’re about to authorize,” Nelson said.

“I hope I don’t need to state that I reserve all options for the future, including working directly with my fellow board members at [the Fire Authority]…and maybe our boards just agree to send this to arbitration, not mediation.”

“Let’s let this play out for 30 days, and if we need to intervene, I promise I won’t forget to put it on the agenda.”

A sheriff’s spokesman said Tuesday evening he was working on a case and unable to comment on the supervisors’ action.

But Fire Authority officials say the Sheriff’s Department has been interfering with their ability to do their jobs.

When the sheriff’s helicopters show up, “we don’t know if they’re medics, we don’t know if they’re [emergency medical technicians]. We don’t know what they are,” said Stone, the battalion chief, following the meeting.

“It would be like us putting shotguns on the front of our fire engines and racing into bank robberies. If we did something like that, they would be just as upset and scratching their heads saying, ‘What’s going on?’

“What we’re dealing with is [a] daily routine…of fighting in the air over these calls.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

Jose Ochoa is a Voice of OC intern.

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