Aviation Unit Sings ‘Kumbaya’ After Years of ‘Issues’

Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department Reach Compromise

On July 2 last year, a Sheriff’s deputy fell 20 feet from a helicopter hoist during a marijuana-eradication operation. The cause, according to the county’s Risk Management Division, was a mechanical malfunction. His injuries were non-life-threatening, but he is still out on workers’ compensation. Litigation is pending.

The incident highlighted a rift long widening in the county’s Aviation Unit, which combined Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters in 2012 to save money to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars. The unit has four pilots and a handful of other assisting personnel. Its mission ranges from fighting wildfires to supporting Sheriff’s deputies on the ground to locate criminal suspects. The mix forced the agencies to confront longtime differences ​— ​in missions and training protocols ​— ​between the two departments.

Though for years it appeared as though the Aviation Unit could split again, the county supervisors this week re-upped its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The supervisors acknowledged “issues” existed, but they ultimately basked in what Supervisor Salud Carbajal called a “kumbaya” moment. “For a while there, we weren’t sure we were going to get [there],” he said. Per the MOU, a fifth pilot to focus on fire and emergency response was added for a $202,000 annual cost. (All pilots, though, are trained to respond to any mission.) The MOU also allotted $51,000 for an increase in training costs.

The so-called issues included, among other things, personality conflicts among firefighters and deputies. Conflict escalated when things were slower, according to various sources, and relations tended to be better when they were busy.

The agreement also calls for an executive meeting to convene quarterly, which Undersheriff Bernard Melekian said could help prevent issues. “A lot of work has gone into creating this agreement,” he said. Fire Chief Eric Peterson admitted he had doubts when the process started. “I think we have a really good compromise here,” he said.

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