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Panel Votes to Bolster Fire Department’s Airport Base

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Addressing concerns about helicopter safety, city officials moved Monday to increase staffing for the Los Angeles Fire Department’s air base at Van Nuys Airport so crews do not have to be pulled from nearby fire stations.

A state audit released last week and an internal Fire Department audit completed earlier this year concluded that removing pilots, paramedics and other crew members from regular firefighting duty for emergency medical flights increases response times and can compromise safety.

The City Council’s Public Safety Committee recommended Monday that $750,000 be allocated to add 13 pilots and paramedics to the Air Operations Unit at Van Nuys.

“It will raise the bar of professionalism with full-time staffing, reduce costly training time, and reduce potential life and property loss as a consequence of faster response times,” Fire Chief William Bamattre told the council panel.

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Included in the funding package is authority to create a new position of chief pilot, which addresses safety audit recommendations that the city no longer put its air operations under control of a nonpilot firefighter.

“We recognize our management structure was somewhat flawed,” Battalion Chief Pat Engel told the panel.

The state and city audits were ordered after a helicopter crashed in Griffith Park in March 1998, killing three firefighters and the child they were transporting to a hospital from the scene of a car accident.

Audits found that standard practice at other fire departments is to dedicate crews exclusively for medical and rescue helicopters.

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The funding would allow the Fire Department to assign pilots, paramedics and firefighters to Van Nuys Airport so they could immediately respond to emergency calls for helicopters, Engel said.

“Many times we are delayed up to 12 minutes before we are able to respond on an incident,” Engel said of air operations. “That’s unacceptable to us.”

A report last week by State Auditor Kurt Sjoberg also said having firefighters with “dual roles” can affect safety, because crews assigned solely to flight duties can focus more on helicopter training and procedures.

Sjoberg’s audit also faulted the Fire Department for not having a regular replacement program for its fleet of six helicopters. A plan was sent to the council last year but is still under review.

Ken Buzzell, who heads the firefighters union, said a replacement program is long overdue.

“We fly them until they fly into the ground and crash,” Buzzell told the council members. “That is totally unacceptable.”

Fire officials told the council panel that the next helicopter expected to reach 8,000 hours of flight time and need replacement will be in July.

The Fire Department was planning to ask for the $2 million to replace the helicopter for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2000, but Councilman Joel Wachs said it would take another six months after that to purchase the helicopter.

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“You are going to run the risk of a six-month period where you have something that is over the replacement age,” Wachs said. “God forbid there is an accident then. The total blame is going to come right here for knowing in advance that it was going over and not having [replaced] it.”

Wachs and other council members asked the Fire Department to expedite its request for funding to replace the helicopter.

Councilman Mike Feuer also urged the city to consider a proposal by Bell Helicopter to trade in some of its older aircraft for newer models at a discount.


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