Fire chief, sheriff reject medevac policy change after fatal incident

Some in the Orange County, California public safety community have pushed to change the policy that restricts when a sheriff's helicopter can be dispatched


Tony Saavedra
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Leaders of the Orange County Sheriff's Department and Fire Authority are refusing to reconsider a practice that required dispatchers to send a fire helicopter to retrieve a badly injured child even though it was 18 minutes away while a sheriff's helicopter was close by.

The 7-year-old Fontana boy died of his injuries in the 2019 traffic accident on the 241 Tollway east of Anaheim Hills, causing some to question if he might have survived with a faster helicopter response.

Orange County Fire Authority and Sheriff's Office officials said they do not plan to change a policy that required dispatchers to send a fire helicopter to a fatal crash in 2019, despite the sheriff's office helicopter being closer to the scene.
Orange County Fire Authority and Sheriff's Office officials said they do not plan to change a policy that required dispatchers to send a fire helicopter to a fatal crash in 2019, despite the sheriff's office helicopter being closer to the scene. (Photo/Orange County Fire Authority)

At issue is the current practice not to use sheriff's rescue helicopters to transport victims from nonrural, paved areas. That practice is now under fire by the former head of the sheriff's aviation unit and an email ostensibly from an emergency dispatcher for the Orange County Fire Authority.

Some trustees on the fire board say Sheriff Don Barnes and Fire Chief Brian Fennessy should meet and find a way to ensure more victims aren't left waiting while a sheriff's helicopter is readily available.

But Barnes and Fennessy now say there is nothing to talk about, pointing to an agreement between the two agencies that limits the sheriff's helicopters to rural rescues.

The memorandum of understanding between the two agencies "is for off-highway search and rescue calls that we jointly respond to with the Orange County Fire Authority," Barnes wrote in an email. "On-pavement medical air ambulance calls are very clearly not part of our MOU, nor will they be. The Orange County Sheriffs Department helicopters are not air ambulances. We are not renegotiating the MOU based on this incident.

"It is in the best interest of public safety and the mission of the Orange County Sheriff's Department's Air Support Bureau to directly support law enforcement services countywide and to perform remote rescues as needed," he added.

Sheriff's officials went on to say department helicopters are not qualified as air ambulances.

But according to the Federal Aviation Administration, a law enforcement agency such as the Sheriff's Department does not need FAA certification to operate as an air ambulance as long as it is not charging for the aircraft or the pilots. Landing area — paved or off-highway — is not a factor.

Orange County emergency regulations define air ambulances as carrying a registered nurse, but fire helicopters as well as sheriff copters do not.

Don Wagner, a member of the fire board as well as the county Board of Supervisors, had pushed for the sheriff and chief to talk to ensure the best and closest rescue helicopter could be dispatched on future calls.

"I'm a little disappointed there's no conversation to be had," Wagner said. " Chief Fennessy's decision there should be further discussion was a responsible one, and I'm disappointed there will be no discussion."

But in a statement later sent to the Southern California News Group, Fennessy said: " Sheriff Barnes and I talk regularly on how best to serve the community through coordination and collaboration. If changes are needed in any area, we will make adjustments at that time. Currently, no amendments are needed to our agreement."

The death of 7-year-old Ver'shad Raggins and subsequent criticism of the helicopter response were uncovered in a Nov. 20 investigation by the Southern California News Group.

The current Fire Authority practice for handling air rescues on paved property is to first call Mercy Air, a private ambulance service. If Mercy Air cannot respond in a timely manner, then the fire agency takes the call. The sheriff's helicopters are not used.

Such was the case on Aug. 25, 2019, when Raggins was dying on the toll road asphalt near the Windy Ridge Plaza. An OCFA copter in Fullerton was dispatched instead of a sheriff's helicopter in nearby Loma Ridge, about one minute away.

According to the anonymous email sent to OCFA board members, dispatchers pleaded repeatedly with supervisors to send the closer sheriff's copter. But they were denied.

"In the end, OCFA ignored and disregarded the closest available resource and this little boy died and he died because we failed him!" ended the email.

Sheriff's Sgt. William Fitzgerald, who led the aviation unit until he complained about the Raggins' incident, said in an email to his supervisor: "All of us in public safety should be ashamed of ourselves about this call."

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(c)2021 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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