City considers helicopter deal

by Ray Huard on.April 8, 2013 in the U~T San Diego

A helicopter to provide emergency air ambulance service would be based in
Oceanside under a deal being negotiated between the Oceanside Fire
Department and a Santa Rosa company.

“We are working with Reach Air Medical Service in establishing a base using
a public-private partnership here in Oceanside,” Fire Chief Daryl Hebert said
in an interview last week. “I see it as a great opportunity.

Mayor Jim Wood said he is “very supportive” of the plan.

“It will be an improvement, certainly for the public safety aspect and recovery,”
Wood said. With the city and county growing, Wood said the area could well
use the service.

“Plus, it will be stationed here,” Wood said.

But City Councilman Jerry Kern isn’t quite sold on the proposal.

“I don’t know if we really need one,” Kern said Monday. “I’m taking kind of a
‘wait-and-see, let’s fully investigate it’ attitude right now.”

Under the tentative deal as outlined by Hebert, Reach Air would lease space
from the city and build a helipad at the Fire Department’s training center at
110 Jones Road near the Oceanside airport.

Reach Air would provide the helicopter, a pilot and a flight nurse, Hebert said.
A city paramedic also would be assigned to the helicopter with Reach Air
paying for the medic.

“We’re not going out and buying a helicopter or anything like that. This is a
win-win,” Hebert said. “It’s not going to cost us anything. There’s no cost
to the city at all.”

Reach Air provides emergency helicopter service in California, Oregon and
Texas, said Don Warton, the company’s director of business development.

Although the helicopter would be based in Oceanside, Warton said it would
be available for emergency calls throughout North County.

“We think we can augment and bring some additional services and availability
to the north end of San Diego County,” Warton said. “We think there’s a
demonstrated need for us there.”

The company makes its money by billing insurance companies for patients
it transports, Warton said with no charge and no subsidy from the cities it serves.

“We assume 100 percent of the risk,” Warton said.

The Oceanside Fire Department now relies on Mercy Air Service for emergency
helicopter service, Hebert said. He said on average the department calls on an
air ambulance 17 to 20 times a month to transport people with serious traumatic
injuries to Palomar Medical Center or Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego.

Hebert said he has no complaints about Mercy Air, but that the Reach Air helicopter
would be available for city use in a variety of circumstances besides emergency
medical service.

“That’s the uniqueness we don’t have right now with Mercy Air,” Hebert said.

He said the Reach Air helicopter could be used for search and rescue missions
and as a spotter during wildfires.

“It would allow us to have a command platform for use if we had a lost child on
the beach or a missing person or a brush fire,” Hebert said.

Details of the proposal are still being negotiated, Hebert said, but he said his goal
is to bring a final plan to the City Council in May for approval.

Although Reach Air would pay the operating costs, including the salaries of city
paramedics who would staff the helicopter, Kern said he’s concerned the city
might be on the hook to cover their long-term pension costs under the state
Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).

The city also might find itself in the position where it has to cover the medic’s
salary if the helicopter deal doesn’t pan out over time.

“If there’s a true need to have a helicopter here and they (Reach Air) provide
private paramedics, I don’t mind doing that. I’m just very cautious about
adding to our PERS debt,” Kern said.

For a time in the early 1990s, Oceanside police operated two helicopters but
the program was abandoned after six months to save money and after residents
complained about the nighttime noise.