The ongoing fight between Sheriff’s Department and Fire Authority officials over who gets to rescue people using helicopters in remote areas burst into public view again Tuesday, months after the county Board of Supervisors declined both agencies’ request for a mediator to resolve the issue.

At their regular meeting, the supervisors, who are responsible for defining who responds to which type of search and rescue incident, said it wasn’t their job to fix the dispute – which reportedly has led to near-collisions between rescue helicopters. Supervisors instead pointed to other agencies to resolve the issue.

“I don’t have authority to make ‘em agree,” said Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who raised the possibility of contacting the Federal Aviation Administration to get pilot’s licenses revoked, or going to court. Nelson said he was concerned there’s “no final authority” to resolve the issue.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer directed county attorneys to report the dispute to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, though no one said what that office’s authority would be in this situation.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett said the county needed someone to step in who has “authority.” And Supervisor Andrew Do emphasized he county can’t require the two sides to follow the result of a mediation.

Despite painting a picture of not having jurisdiction, the supervisors are responsible under state law for determining which agency takes the lead in responding to specific search and rescue scenarios across the county. 

While they called for other agencies to assert authority, the supervisors sided with the Sheriff’s Department, supporting its authority to take control over rescues. And the supervisors and their lead attorney warned Fire Authority officials they could be criminally prosecuted if they interfere with a Sheriff’s Department rescue.

“It’s a public safety issue, and potentially a crime,” if the Fire Authority interferes with sheriff activities, said County Counsel Leon Page, citing a state law making it a misdemeanor to delay or obstruct a law enforcement officer, punishable by up to a year in jail.

Though Page didn’t mention it at the meeting, the same law also makes it a crime to delay or obstruct an “emergency medical technician,” or “public officer.”

Supervisors said they wanted to do what’s best for public safety. But they didn’t explain why they consider the Sheriff’s Department better for these rescues than the Fire Authority, nor did they compare the two agencies’ qualifications.

The sheriff’s deputies’ union has been one of the largest campaign donors to the Board of Supervisors, while the firefighters’ union has backed their opponents in crucial elections, according to available records.

Supervisor Andrew Do was supported by $100,000 in Sheriff’s deputies’ union campaign spending for his tight re-election in 2016, according to disclosures. Do ended up winning by 0.4 percent of the vote.

In contrast, the firefighters’ union spent at least $20,000 backing Do’s Democrat opponent in that election, Michele Martinez, and at least $3,500 supporting Do’s opponent in his original 2015 election for supervisor, Lou Correa.

When it comes to helicopter rescues in remote areas, there used to be clearly defined roles for both sides: the Sheriff’s Department handled searches and the Fire Authority handled rescues. But as the sheriff’s helicopter capabilities grew in recent years, its crews also started responding to rescue calls in the county’s remote parks and canyons.

With crews competing to rescue the same person, officials say the situation has become dangerous and could lead to a mid-air collision.

After dozens of meetings between the two agencies failed to resolve it, both sides sides came to county supervisors in August for help – asking supervisors to hire a trusted mediator, like a retired judge, to listen to both sides and offer recommendations for how to resolve the dispute.

Trying to continue talks without a trusted third-party mediator “would be a waste of time,” Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said at the August meeting. The Fire Authority’s then-chief, Jeff Bowman, agreed.

Two supervisors – Bartlett and Spitzer – supported the mediation idea at the time, but the other three didn’t, and there was no action by the supervisors to have a third party mediate the dispute. The Sheriff’s Department and Fire Authority were on their own to try to resolve the dispute.

At the same time, the supervisors approved the sheriff’s request to approve a plan that defines both agencies as taking the lead when it comes to the main kind of airlift at issue: off-road rescues in which the location of the person is known.

Five months later, the dispute rages on.

Earlier this month, sheriff’s officials alleged a Fire Authority chopper crew flew dangerously close to two Sheriff’s Department copters at Irvine Regional Park, on Jan. 14. The Fire Authority, meanwhile, blamed the Sheriff’s Department for the incident, and said the helicopters stayed a safe distance from each other.

Two days later, Hutchens rescinded the two agencies’ agreement for search and rescue operations, known as the memorandum of understanding. That move made the Sheriff’s Department the lead agency for search and rescues in Orange County, according to Hutchens, Spitzer, and Do.

But the Fire Authority disagreed with that interpretation, with a spokesman telling the Orange County Register “nothing has changed just because the sheriff made a statement.”

Supervisors took strong issue with that, with Spitzer asking the Fire Authority’s interim chief “how in the world” his spokesman could say that.

Chief Patrick McIntosh responded that the Fire Authority’s air rescue program has been in place “for decades,” and for the Sheriff’s Department to “unilaterally” take over duties the fire authority has done “with excellence” for 20 years is “wrong.”

McIntosh said he agreed the sheriff should manage longer-term search and rescue operations, such as those that require on the ground search teams.

But “short duration” rescues and medical aid have always been done by the Fire Authority, McIntosh said. The memorandum of understanding made clear these kinds of responses would be handled by the Fire Authority when it comes to injured people, he added.

Part of the ongoing confusion over helicopter responses lies in the official search and rescue policy adopted by the Board of Supervisors last August.

That policy, which is the state’s model policy for search and rescue responsibilities, defines both the Fire Authority and Sheriff’s Department as the “lead agency” when it comes to short-duration rescues of people in a known location away from highways.

What’s more, the policy goes on to give preference to one of the agencies in this scenario – only to contradict itself and give preference to the other agency in the same situation.

It seems to support the Sheriff’s Department for these rescues, saying: “Accessibility from a roadway is the key issue,” and “[Fire Authority] resources are not trained and equipped to operate far from their vehicles, especially in rough terrain and/or inclement weather.”

But the policy goes on to favor the Fire Authority, saying the public “will benefit” from the Fire Authority responding if the operation “can be accomplished efficiently without jeopardizing the safety of [Fire Authority] personnel.”

During the lengthy supervisors’ discussion Tuesday, the policy wasn’t explained, or brought up at all.

In an interview after the meeting, Page said there’s a “clear dividing line” for who should respond under the policy.

If the person needing rescue is in a location that’s not accessible from a roadway suitable for a vehicle, the Sheriff’s Department should respond, Page said. If the remote rescue is along a roadway, the Fire Authority would respond, he said.

Asked about the part of the policy suggesting the Fire Authority respond for short-duration rescues if its personnel wouldn’t be in jeopardy, Page reiterated that the “key test” is distance from the roadway.

The Sheriff’s Department helicopters are equipped with advance camera technology to aid in searches and rescues, he added.

“What the sheriff’s department does best is search and rescue in remote locations,” Page said.

While the supervisors didn’t say why they thought the Sheriff’s Department was better for helicopter rescues in remote areas, their attorney, Page, later provided a comparison the two agencies’ helicopter capabilities, showing the Sheriff’s Department as having more helicopters and pilots. The Fire Authority disputed that information.

Meanwhile, the Fire Authority is suggesting the Sheriff’s Department might no longer have the legal authority to conduct search and rescue operations at all, due to Hutchens’ decision to end the memorandum of understanding.

“While the Sheriff and County have vulnerability in providing services after terminating the [memorandum of understanding], the [Fire Authority] does not have the same vulnerability,” the Fire Authority said in a statement Tuesday night. “We continue to provide our services pursuant to general municipal authority and the police power.”

At Spitzer’s direction, Page will now contact the governor’s emergency office for advice about the overall helicopter dispute. The state office’s chief spokesman, Brad Alexander, didn’t return a phone message asking what his agency’s authority would be.

As for the other agencies, Page asked at the end of the supervisors’ discussion if his office should contact the Federal Aviation Administration, given Nelson’s repeated questions asking if that’s possible. After looking at Nelson, Do told Page to hold off, at least for now.

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

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