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  • TEST FLIGHT

    County Fire Department tests multi-mission helicopter program

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  • The San Bernardino County Fire Department is finishing up a trial program to test the feasibility of providing rescue, treatment and transportation for victims out of a single helicopter.
    The program differs from the traditional approach, as helicopters are usually dedicated to specific tasks. Flight Captain Steve Simpson said County Fire plans to present its findings to the Board of Supervisors in a few months.
    If taken full-scale, the program could raise concerns for private air ambulance companies such as Mercy Air.
    The Fire Department has not publicized the helicopter program because it is still in the trial phase, but County Fire spokesman and flight paramedic Eric Sherwin and Simpson sat down with the Daily Press and explained the program.
    Sherwin said the program was implemented in response to long ground response times in off-highway vehicle areas around Highway 40 and difficult rescue operations in local mountains.
    “The multi-mission capability is one of the largest advantages of this program,” Sherwin said. “It’s something we’re very proud to be able to provide: This multitude of services from a single airframe. Providing services in the corridor where ambulances can take up to two hours to get on scene when we’re talking about somebody being trapped in a vehicle ... Best case scenario is we get that person out well ahead of the ground units because of their extended (arrival times).
    “It was a recognized and identified need within the county and we were able to identify a solution.”
    The helicopter program began as a coordinated effort between the Fire Department and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department on Dec. 13. The Fire Department is using the Sheriff’s Department’s refurbished Vietnam War-era helicopter for 10 hours each day Monday through Thursday to respond to emergency medical calls.
    The helicopter is outfitted with a hoist, along with tools such as the Jaws of Life that can be used for rescue situations that other air ambulances are not equipped to handle, Sherwin and Simpson said.  
    While the pair said the helicopter has proven itself as the rescue ship the county needed, dispatch call logs show the Fire Department helicopter program is responding to more than rescue incidents — everything from car accidents on Interstate 15 to medical emergencies such as strokes and drownings.
    Mercy Air Regional Vice President Kevin Stanhope said Mercy Air has been providing air ambulance services to San Bernardino for 25 years and “would love to continue the partnership and good working relationship with the Sheriff’s and Fire Departments.”
    “Our crew does have some concerns (about this helicopter program going full-time), but it’s all been speculation and rumors so far,” Stanhope said. “We’re keeping an eye on it and if it does change, we’d certainly want to be at the table when those discussions are going on.”
    Simpson said the helicopter’s trial phase was originally planned to be only a couple of months long, but more numbers were needed before the Fire Department presented its findings to the supervisors.
    “Right now, we still have some third-party consultants looking over our work and...we were hoping to deliver that to the board within a couple months, if not sooner,” Simpson said. “The goal of that is to get support from the board to hopefully start our Phase One.”
    Steve Hunt 7/18/14 Sherwin said there is not yet an exact date the program will be presented to the board, but the Fire Department is “in the final phases of the feasibility study,” but the helicopter will continue to run the same hours with the same staffing.  
    If the board approves the program, FAA certification and a new helicopter would be on the table.
    “As we get along further, we look at getting a new, updated type of aircraft with the same type of configuration that provides that multi-mission,” Simpson said. “...When, and if, it does get accepted and drawn into a permanent status, we would most definitely like to be in a different type of aircraft, something newer. Our goal is definitely not to be running it out of these.”
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