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BSO helicopter crash casts spotlight on aging aviation unit

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony

Broward County Mayor Lamar Fisher and Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony want to bolster the department's aging aviation unit following Monday’s fatal crash in Pompano Beach of a helicopter that was more than two decades old.

Fisher met with Tony to explore how to fund at least one new replacement rescue helicopter. The Broward County Commission may vote on the plan during its scheduled September 7 meeting.

The mayor and sheriff said helicopter manufacturer Airbus is offering a chance to purchase two new air rescue helicopters that could be available within six months. The process usually takes two to three years, the mayor said.

"It is a high priority for the commission and for the Broward Sheriff's Office to immediately get another aircraft available so they can have that and then work on the other ones as soon as possible," Fisher told WLRN Thursday.

Earlier in the week, Tony said BSO needs six helicopters to handle the high volume of emergency calls. It currently has three helicopters.

"My goal is to recover not only what we need now, but having a long−term strategy to make sure, regardless who's standing here as a sheriff or who's standing in that dais as commissioners, they will always have the best, latest and greatest aviation unit flying overhead," Tony told reporters at press conference Tuesday.

Previous ask for aid

Tony said he alerted county commissioners about outdated helicopter gear during a meeting in June but did not make a formal funding request to replace the 24-year-old medical rescue chopper that crashed early Monday when it caught fire and broke apart shortly after takeoff, and then crashed into an apartment complex.

Killed in crash: Broward County Fire-Rescue Capt. Terryson Jackson, 49, and a woman — yet to be identified by authorites — who lived in the apartment complex. The helicopter was en route to aid victims of a car in North Lauderdale. Two others on the helicopter, BSO paramedic Mikael “Mike” Chauguaceda and Fire Rescue pilot Daron Roche were hospitalized after the crash and have since returned home, according to BSO.

During a June budget workshop, Tony told county commissioners of the need to improve the aviation unit with more helicopters. A request for replacement aircraft was not included in that budget.

"We've been piecemealing parts for years to maintain the flight capability," Tony told commissioners.

The sheriff said that because of the volume of flights, the department had been forced to exceed the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule of the aircraft, which is once every 600 miles.

"Our aircraft are in the air up to 1,000 hours...so we're almost doubling the flight time on these aircraft before we can maintenance them," he said.

Tony said he had been in touch with county administrators about the "$20 million" project to add more helicopters to the department but was not ready to make the formal budget request. The county's budget is scheduled to be finalized in September.

"This will be a separate item that we're going to come back on because I think we're going to have a strategy where we can probably get this done internally," Tony said during the June budget workshop. "We're not coming here saying we need 20 million upfront, but we have a strategy."

During the June meeting, the sheriff called county staff "receptive" to meetings about funding for more helicopters. After the crash, Tony changed his tone and laid some blame on the county and his predecessor for not being proactive.

“This is the result of not just one administration, whether it be BSO or the county government,” Tony said Tuesday. “This is how things have operated in government here in this county for too long, in that tragedy strikes, and then we respond.”

The only way to formally request money from the county is through the budget process. Although in the past, the commission has given the Sheriff money to address emergency situations — like when they gave him $4 million in May of last year to address staffing issues at 9-1-1 call centers.

The report: More problems than aging choppers

While the age of the helicopter that crashed Monday brought attention to the unit, a 2017 consultant report commissioned by the sheriff's office found aviation workers did not perform basic maintenance duties and the department’s director of maintenance did not keep an inventory of parts.

The report was prepared by Law Enforcement Aviation Consultants in 2017 when Scott Israel was sheriff.

Broward County Commissioner Micheal Udine, while voicing support for the sheriff's June budget presentation, challenged Tony to "show me the justification and make sure it's a lot different than when I voted against it in 2017," he said during the June meeting.

The Broward County Commission then voted 7-1 to replace two helicopters after the Sheriff asked, citing the report's findings, which concluded the department's two law enforcement helicopters needed to be immediately replaced.

The 2017 report found that the rescue helicopter that crashed Monday should have been sold and replaced before undergoing an engine overhaul in 2016.

"However, the investment made into this aircraft has raised its resale value and extended its useful life until 2020. The next optimal time to sell and replace this helicopter is anytime between 2018 and 2022," the report states.

The report was also criticial of BSO's most modern helicopter, the only Air Rescue helicopter left after Monday's crash.

It “has been the most problematic of the three (active) helicopters,” the report said, due to its high operating weight.

BSO has grounded all three of its remaining helicopters for inspection after the crash.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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