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Letter: Sheriff’s Dept. & County Fire Feuding Over Helicopter Control

A group calling itself “Concerned Professional Firefighters” sent an anonymous letter to KEY News outlining concerns over the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department’s takeover of emergency response helicopters.The merger of Sheriff and County Fire air support units is supposed to save the county upwards of $270,000.Fire Chief Michael Dyer downplayed any conflict between the two aviation departments. “This letter was a complete surprise,” Dyer said. “We were notified internally about some issues and we immediately jumped on them and took care of them.”The anonymous letter isn’t the first time an alleged feud has been talked about between the Sheriff’s Department and County Fire over the use of county aircrafts.In July, 2009, a KEY News investigative report exposed at least one fist fight in the helicopter hangar. Sources say the bad blood played a role in the death of 17-year-old Dennis “Oige” Keane. Keane was hiking near Figueroa Mountain and the rescue helicopter didn’t respond for 3 hours.On July 4, 8-year-old Edwin Jijada drowned in the Santa Ynez River. The letter states Sheriff officials canceled the fire helicopter that was equipped for a water rescue and sent their own chopper that was not equipped.And then last month, Nicole Peters died while hiking near Montecito. She called 911 but there were delays with the helicopter and rescuers found her body 90 minutes later.The letter also claims Sheriff’s personnel refused to train with firefighters and that it has led to problems within the department.”I can’t answer for the Sheriff but I know firefighters and there’s no safety concern with firefighters or pilots flying the aircraft,” Chief Dyer said. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be flying them.”Dyer also said the accusations of fire helicopters being out of service and needing repairs are not true. “I can tell you that the fire helicopters are available right now and in the middle of fire season, I think that is important,” he said.The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department did not have a comment on the anonymous letter sent to KEY News.

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