Following the County Board of Supervisors’ move on Tuesday to consolidate the aviation units from both the Fire and Sheriff’s departments, Fire Chief Mike Dyer and Sheriff Bill Brown headed to North County to address their crews.
For years, there have been sour feelings between the two agencies, given the two very different cultures in law enforcement and fire departments, and the different missions and capabilities each aviation unit provided the county. “There was a degree of rivalry,” Brown admitted. “There was a degree of communication that wasn’t what it should have been.”
But Dyer and Brown — who, since Dyer arrived in 2009, have both worked, unsuccessfully, to integrate the two units — laid out expectations for their new combined group, which will operate under the sheriff. “These guys are professionals, and ultimately they have a lot of respect for each other,” Dyer said after the meeting. “They may not like each other, but they respect each other.”
After years of back-and-forth — some of it public, much of it private — between the two units, the Board of Supervisors decided in June to create a subcommittee to get to the bottom of the county’s aviation program and figure out what should be done with the county’s five helicopters. There had been confusion for a long time over what services each department’s unit is able to provide. The subcommittee — consisting of 2nd District Supervisor Janet Wolf and 5th District Supervisor Lavagnino, who most certainly don’t see eye-to-eye on most political issues — spent the next seven months interviewing experts in the field and gathering information on the county’s own aviation units.
There was no question that the services provided were important — anyone who experienced firsthand the Tea or Jesusita fires can vouch for the importance of the water-dropping missions flown the first nights of those fires, while search-and-rescue teams have saved dozens of stranded hikers in the hills above Santa Barbara — it was more of a matter of vetting out who had the training to do what, and at what cost to the county.
What the subcommittee came up with was a plan that will save the county $270,000 a year. But more importantly, they solved a riddle that for so long had baffled county officials, and they brought together two public officials in a unified front to protect the citizens of Santa Barbara. “The two departments really stepped up to the plate,” Wolf said.
Under the plan, the unit will keep three copters, including one new one on its way to the sheriff, primed and ready to go, and keep one medium and one large on reserve. Seven days a week, eight hours a day, two multi-mission helicopters will be available with the capacity to do any mission — law or fire — that is required. That includes law enforcement surveillance, fighting fires, search and rescue, anything. Pilots will be trained to fly each of the specialized tasks. The pilot will be accompanied by either fire or sheriff personnel — whichever is most appropriate for the situation.
To get everyone up to speed, the next several months will be spent cross-training the two sides — fire pilots trained to do law enforcement–type missions and sheriff pilots to do complicated water drops and work on large fires. It’s going to take a lot of work, and Brown and Dyer are hopeful that as the two sides train together, they also meld into one unit. “We’re focusing on the mission,” said Dyer.
The end result will be a multi-mission, simultaneous response at a cheaper price to the taxpayers. But perhaps more importantly, it could be the beginning of the end of a complicated issue that has hung over the helicopter hanger at Santa Ynez Airport for years. And it started at the top. “Chief Dyer and I are committed to seeing this new model work,” Brown said.