San Luis Obispo County Emergency responders urged to coordinate

Dispatchers spurned rescue worker requests for emergency helicopters in four 2009 incidents studied by the county’s civil grand jury.

In one case, the jury said, it created a lapse time of 19 minutes before the rescue chopper left to help a victim with major injuries in a motorcycle accident on a remote part of Highway 58.

The grand jury highlighted the incident to illustrate the need for better cooperation between Sheriff’s Department dispatchers and Cal Fire dispatchers, as well as tighter coordination among those two groups and rescue personnel on the ground.

“The grand jury found confusion between the sheriff and Cal Fire dispatchers,” according to a report released Friday. “On the four 911 calls reviewed, dispatchers refused incident commanders’ requests for a helicopter.”

Incident commanders, who are at the scene of an accident, can call for a helicopter, the grand jury notes. But there are obstacles that can prevent the helicopter from arriving swiftly — even if the dispatcher agrees it should be sent, which did not happen in these cases.

A dispatcher is required to notify those operating the county’s two emergency helicopters — Calstar in Santa Maria and the CHP in Paso Robles — and send the aircraft with the fastest response time.

However, the grand jury wrote, the CHP “does not always immediately answer the phone,” which leaves dispatchers waiting for a return call and “results in critical delays in dispatching emergency services that could result in loss of life.”

The grand jury found other problems, most of them relating to confusion among emergency personnel.

“There was confusion about which of the emergency services would be sent to the scene and which ... would do the dispatching,” the jury wrote.

The grand jury also noted that there is an ongoing dispute about the circumstances under which a helicopter should be sent. While they can save lives, some “see helicopters as a general danger to the general public. There were 36 aero medical crash deaths in the United States last year,” the grand jury wrote.

The use of both the Calstar and CHP helicopters has gone down in San Luis Obispo County in recent years, the grand jury noted.

Calstar received 24 emergency calls that resulted in patient transport in the county in 2007, the grand jury wrote. That number shrunk to 11 in 2008 and 12 in 2009.

The CHP helicopter received 24 emergency calls in 2007, eight in 2008 and nine in 2009.

The grand jury did not explore the cost of sending a helicopter or whether that is a factor in making the decision during these tough budget times.

The grand jury recommended that:

• The sheriff’s and Cal Fire dispatch operations be combined.

• Dispatchers must not overrule incident commanders on the ground.

• The county’s Emergency Medical Services Agency should “revise their procedures so dispatchers are able to launch the helicopter with the shortest estimated time of arrival.”

The civil grand jury’s recommendations are non-binding. But by law, the Board of Supervisors, Emergency Medical Services Agency, sheriff and Cal Fire must respond to the report.