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County Fire Department Calls for Copters : Public safety: Report on emergency preparedness urges supervisors to support $500,000 in repairs to make two military-surplus craft airworthy.


SANTA ANA — An Orange County helicopter program, grounded during the Laguna Beach firestorms, is being recommended for takeoff, according to a county Fire Department review of local emergency preparedness.

The report was completed after last week's catastrophic Northridge earthquake but provides few details about cost and operation of a firefighting air force.

Nonetheless, the proposal is expected to get general support today when it is presented to the Board of Supervisors.

The 28-page report also called on officials to strengthen a network of county fire stations long at risk of future earthquake damage, and to pay a consultant to review the county emergency plan.

At the top of the list, however, fire officials asked for aerial support to aid in rescue, firefighting and transportation operations in isolated areas of the county.

"This last week has provided living examples of how helicopters could increase our efficiency in times of emergency," board Chairman Thomas F. Riley said. "We'll see what miracles we can work out."

Only last month, fire officials complained that much of the $435 million in damages at Laguna Beach could have been averted had the two county-owned helicopters been operational during the fires.

"The need for the helicopters stands on its own," county Fire Chief Larry Holms said Monday. "But the earthquake just increases the value of having helicopters available."

Holms declined to discuss details of the Fire Department's plan, but county officials have estimated that it could cost up to $500,000 to refurbish the two helicopters and at least a year to place them in service.

The two Vietnam War-era helicopters were provided to the county four years ago as part of a military-surplus program, but budget problems have prevented their conversion to firefighting aircraft.

Fire officials have said the choppers could have played a key role in ferrying water to remote areas on Oct. 27 just as flames began to spread and ground crews had exhausted their water supplies.

"In looking at what happened in Los Angeles last week," Holms said, "Helicopters were used to fight fires in areas cut off (to ground units). They would be beneficial here in a similar type of event."

The report on the county's overall preparedness was ordered last week when Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder said she was "embarrassed" that the county had not set deadlines to complete renovations to 14 firehouses deemed to be at "high" or "very high" risk of earthquake damage.

County documents had shown renovation plans for only two of the stations. Six stations were in the process of relocation, and four were city-owned with remodeling responsibilities falling to those cities.

In the report to be considered by the board today, Wieder said she was satisfied with fire officials' call to proceed with remodeling work and "incorporate progressive seismic design strategies" in new and remodeled stations.

On the issue of helicopters, Wieder said she supported the "concept" but "school is not out on whether it is cost-effective."

"This earthquake was a wake-up call for all of us," Wieder said. "It's something that we tend not to think about on sunny days. I want to make sure that our planning doesn't fall through the cracks."

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