LIHU‘E — Faster response times and better liability have been the two biggest boons to the county from its purchase last year of a helicopter, Kaua‘i Fire Chief Robert Westerman said Monday.
In June 2010, the Kaua‘i County Council approved funds for the administration to purchase a helicopter to be used primarily in rescue and other emergency missions. The cherry-red Kaleke Pono, or “to fly safely,” has been in operation since February.
The $2 million price tag was criticized, but the administration may actually be better off financially with its own chopper, county officials said. Liability-wise, Westerman said, there has been a “huge improvement.”
Prior to the helicopter’s purchase, KFD contracted with private companies to assist in rescue operations using their own birds. Now the county is responsible for its own chopper’s maintenance and is able to conduct rescue-training sessions, Westerman said.
Over a decade ago, a firefighter was injured in an accident during a rescue operation in which a private helicopter company had been contracted, Westerman said, adding that the firefighter never went back to work.
Besides the liability, another major improvement has been in response time for rescue operations, the chief said.
One of the three pilots under contract with the county is on stand-by everyday at Lihu‘e Airport, from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset.
When the helicopter is needed, the pilot is notified of which kind of operation he will be performing. He then gets the helicopter ready, while a KFD team comes from Lihu‘e Fire Station, Westerman said.
The county is paying $1.2 million — $285,000 annually — for the helicopter’s lease-to-own deal. A $600,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security and another $150,000 Community Development Block Grant help pay for the rest of the helicopter’s expenses, Westerman said. In four years the helicopter is expected to be paid off.
In terms of operations, the money spent on maintenance is about the same as before the chopper’s purchase. When KFD contracted private companies, the department’s annual budget for such services was $75,000, but always went over the estimates, reaching $100,000, according to Westerman. KFD’s annual budget for the helicopter’s operations is set at $100,000.
Westerman said Monday during a Fire Commission meeting that the helicopter is “technically” to be used by any county agency, but it is managed by KFD.
The top priority for helicopter use is life-saving and protection of property in emergency operations conducted by KFD, Kaua‘i Police Department and the county Civil Defense, he said.
Second priority goes to unscheduled law enforcement and other fire, rescue and wild-land firefighting operations.
Third priority is to fire, police and civil defense surveillance, and fourth is to flight and operation training for KFD and KPD. Green harvest — a police marijuana plant eradication program — would fall into this category, Westerman said.
Other departments get fifth priority in surveillance operations, and sixth priority is for other chief- or mayor-approved operations.
“All priority three, four, five and six flights will be immediately interrupted to support priority one and two operations,” states the helicopter-use policy signed in May by Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. “Depending on operations personnel may be left on site or dropped off to ensure a rapid response to save lives.”
The helicopter’s operational costs come out of KFD’s annual budget. However, some of the costs will be borne by other departments, if they request its use. The helicopter’s estimated direct operating cost per hour is $450.
Westerman said if other departments use the helicopter, money will be moved from their budget to KFD’s budget. The usage policy states that all charges to other departments, where a two-week pre-notice is required, will be pre-approved to ensure the department is aware of costs and funding is available.
• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@ thegardenisland.com.