by Rebecca Fairley Raney
Taking off at 23; or, what I did instead of graduate school
What it won: Second place, investigative reporting, Press Club of Southern California, 1990.
This story was a textbook case of how a story that needs to be told gets told.
I ran across the story as innocently as any reporter could: I heard it on the police scanner.
One morning, two kids had gotten into a wreck on a Moped. The fire captain on the scene called dispatch for a medical helicopter. The dispatcher told him that no helicopters were available.
The conversation went something like this:
"Can you call MAT?"
"MAT is no longer authorized to fly in the county."
"What about LifeFlight?"
"LifeFlight is no longer authorized to fly in the county."
And so on.
Well, I called the fire captain while he was still mad, and he had a story to tell. The county had adopted an ordinance governing medical helicopters that prevented most companies from flying. And it got worse: There was some mumbling about a private ambulance company and the sheriff's right-hand man having a hand in all this.
It all turned out to be true. I plunged into the story hard, punching out the interviews in 12-hour days every day for three weeks. We got it into the paper fast.
The morning it ran, several members of the grand jury showed up at the county hospital; they were waving copies of the paper and demanding to talk to flight nurses. The county Board of Supervisors suspended the helicopter ordinance within a few weeks.
The experience gave me focus.
It's funny; I had been incredibly driven to work as a reporter from the time I was a child, but my motivation had never been entirely clear to me.
After this story, I had absolutely no doubt about what was driving me.
Inland Empire helicopter ordinance encounters
The Daily Report/Progress Bulletin
Sunday, Aug. 27, 1989
A medical helicopter can be the difference between life and death in the 20,000 square miles of San Bernardino County.
Yet life and death could be taking a back seat to politics and business.
Two of the four people who drafted a new ordinance that regulates helicopters in the county are affiliated with one air ambulance company. That company, Mercy Air Service Inc., and the sheriff's department are the only ones with the permits required by the ordinance.
While health department officials are keeping a Riverside company out of the county, they are allowing four more agencies to fly without permits.
Now that the ordinance is in effect, helicopters aren't always available when they're needed. With only two trauma centers in 20,000 square miles, that's often.
Two of the four people who drafted the law are Homer Aerts, director or Mercy Air Service, Inc., and Terry Jagerson, deputy chief of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
Jagerson is also vice president and partner in Mercy Air Service Inc.
When Sheriff Floyd Tidwell found out last spring about Jagerson's helicopter venture, he placed him on administrative leave without pay.
The sheriff said Jagerson had not told him about it, but that he found out from someone on his staff.
Tidwell said he considered the venture a conflict of interest for Jagerson, who was in charge of the department's aviation division. The sheriff said his action was not disciplinary, however.
Aerts said he had not been planning to start a helicopter company when he, Jagerson and two others started drafting the ordinance in July 1987.
The two others were Mike Weis, a division chief and paramedic coordinator for the Hesperia Fire Department, and Diane Fisher, agency administrator for the Inland Counties Emergency Medical Authority.
Planning for the Mercy helicopter started 11 months after the four started drafting the ordinance, when San Antonio Community Medical Center in Upland closed its trauma center, Aerts said.
That left Loma Linda University Medical Center and the county hospital as the county's only trauma centers.
But according to a list of committee members at the county clerk's office, both Jagerson and Aerts were also members of the Emergency Medical Care Committee, which completed the ordinance after Mercy Air was off the ground.
The nine members of the committee are supposed to represent different public interests, such as city managers, hospital administrators and nurses.
Jagerson, who has recently been replaced, sat on the committee as the sheriff's department representative. Aerts is chairman of the committee.
One critic of the ordinance, Upland Fire Chief Gary Edwards, said he believes the new law serves private interests.
"There are some self-serving interests out there that are benefiting from that political clout they've started to wield. I'm not saying anything was done wrong. The appearance leaves one to doubt the integrity -- and it just leaves some serious questions. I'm not so sure something hasn't gone wrong.
"It should be understood I'm not pointing fingers at anybody. But I am entrusted with the health and safety of the public. It looks like somebody is making money off a political move. I merely stand here saying it just doesn't look kosher."
Under the ordinance, the Mercy helicopter is the first to be called to any incident. Mercy is called first because it is the only helicopter in the county to qualify as an "advanced life support air ambulance," the highest rung on the ladder of helicopter classification.
The sheriff's helicopter, classified as "advanced life support air rescue," is second on the list because it does not meet air ambulance standards.
The helicopter rules are applied by the Inland Counties Emergency Medical Authority, a quasi-independent agency that serves Mono, Inyo and San Bernardino counties.
According to a memorandum dated Aug. 1, ICEMA has issued a list of six authorized agencies to county dispatchers.
But of those six, only Mercy and the sheriff's department have received permits.
Another company, Medical Air Transport of Riverside, applied but has not been approved.
While ICEMA is excluding MAT, its officials have not even inspected helicopters from four of the six agencies it has authorized.
Fisher said officials from one agency, the California Highway Patrol, "have assured us they are in compliance with all our requirements. We have not yet had an opportunity to physically inspect them."
Another, Lifeflight of Irvine, is allowed to fly into San Bernardino County on an "irregular basis," according to the dispatch policy memorandum.
Fisher said Lifeflight is allowed to make medical flights here because the company has been classified under Orange County regulations.
But Joe Pagan, president of MAT, said his company is allowed to fly in Orange County as well.
Questions about the ordinance came into focus for critics three weeks ago, when Rancho Cucamonga fire officials called for a helicopter and didn't get one. At the time they called, Pagan said, a MAT helicopter was ready to respond. But two days before, dispatchers had been told not to call MAT.
Upland Fire Chief Edwards said such incidents will continue to arise. He wants to prevent them.
Friday, Edwards recommended at a meeting of the county fire chiefs association that the ordinance be rescinded for further study. The county chiefs association will be looking into his recommendation.
"I know the county chiefs were not happy with the air ambulance ordinance that went in," Edwards said. "I think this time we will bring the issue to bear on the Board of Supervisors."
On Labor Day weekend -- a historically bad holiday for wrecks -- Joe Pagan is going to challenge the county.
Pagan said he is going to station a MAT helicopter in Victorville -- complete with two flight nurses.
There are so many requests for medical helicopters during the holiday, said county emergency communications supervisor Dave Dowling, that "we have a joke that says, 'Let's launch all the helicopters and send them in orbit around the county.' "
Dowling said that if Pagan puts a helicopter in Victorville that weekend, it will make for some hard decisions.
Sidebar: Copter rescue costs differ
No one is arguing that unsafe or poorly equipped helicopters should be allowed to operate in the county.
But one issue is whether new requirements will increase cost for reasons that are hard to justify.
"When they generated these ordinances I said, 'Have you considered the financial impact of these rules?' " said Joe Pagan, president of Riverside-based Medial Air Transport.
But price has become an important issue in the politics of the county air ambulance ordinance.
On average, Mercy Air Service -- which had been MAT's biggest competitor for business in San Bernardino County -- charges twice as much at MAT.
Homer Aerts -- the Mercy director and drafter of the ordinance -- said during an interview that he didn't like the idea of allowing a competitor to operate at a cost of $1,000 per flight when it costs Mercy $2,500 per flight. Pagan said MAT's cost is $750 per flight.
Earlier this summer, when helicopters from MAT and Mercy responded to the same incident, the difference between their bills was more than $1,200.
According to copies of the two medical bills, both MAT and Mercy helicopters flew to the desert community of Hesperia to pick up victims.
MAT made an 86-mile trip to Loma Linda University Medical Center. Mercy's trip was 54 miles to San Bernardino County Medical Center.
MAT's bill was $2,020.97. Mercy's was $3,260.
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