Calif. county officials launch probe into rescue helicopter response to fatal 2019 crash

Orange County fire officials are investigating why a fire helicopter was dispatched to the scene instead of a closer sheriff's office helicopter

Tony Saavedra
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — Orange County fire officials are investigating an August 2019 decision to dispatch a fire helicopter with an 18-minute arrival time to rescue a critically injured child instead of a much closer sheriff's copter.

The 7-year-old boy ended up dying from injuries sustained in a traffic accident on the 241 Toll Road east of Anaheim Hills.

It is unclear whether Ver'shad Raggins of Fontana could have been saved by a faster response, but OCFA board members are trying to determine whether agency policy for dispatching helicopters may have delayed his much-needed treatment.

"We need to talk about this," said Don Wagner, one of 25 trustees on the Fire Authority Board of Directors and a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors. "We want to make sure, to the best extent possible, we are getting the closest helicopter. ... One (incident) is too many."

The OCFA inquiry was sparked by a Nov. 20 investigation by the Southern California News Group into the helicopter miscue and a subsequent email to board members purportedly from a fire employee who said she tried unsuccessfully to get supervisors to send the sheriff's airship instead of the fire chopper.

"To be honest, we are possibly to blame for (Raggins') death from our failure to act," said the writer of the email, who identified herself by the alias " Jane Kurtz."

'Send the closest' helicopter

OCFA board member and Irvine Councilman Anthony Kuo was among the recipients of the anonymous email.

"It's somebody saying I'm bringing this up because I think we need some changes," Kuo said. "In a life-threatening situation, you would always send the closest and best-equipped personnel."

Competition between helicopter crews for the Fire Authority and Orange County Sheriff's Department in the past has contributed to problems with rescues, although the agencies are said to be cooperating in recent years.

Vernon Raggins, the child's father, who was also injured in the crash, said he was angered to learn that employees' efforts to send the closest helicopter were allegedly stymied by supervisors.

"It's very disturbing," said an emotional Raggins. "We're furious. He should have gotten a fair shake."

Whistleblower fears intimidation

The email, also sent to SCNG, said the writer feared her concerns would be glossed over.

"I am an employee of the OCFA in the Emergency Command Center and I am using an alias due to the fact the Fire Chief Brian Fennessy, Deputy Chief Pokey Sanchez and others in the OCFA leadership will do everything to silence an employee that has concerns, using harassment, intimidation and so on and so on," the writer said. "In addition, I have zero confidence they will do the right thing and instead will continue to cover up the failures of the agency ... (but) I can't stay silent any longer."

The Fire Authority, created in 1995, has a $400 million budget to provide protection to unincorporated areas of Orange County and 23 cities.

Ver'shad Raggins was in a car that stalled Aug. 25, 2019, in the traffic lanes on the 241 Toll Road near the Windy Ridge toll plaza, an unincorporated area. Raggins and his family were on their way to a beach picnic in Dana Point when their vehicle was rear-ended by a van.

3 options for air ambulances

Fire Authority policy mandates that Mercy Air, a private service, be called first on air ambulance requests in nonrural areas. If Mercy Air is unable to respond, then the Fire Authority takes the call. The sheriff's helicopter is used only in rural, unpaved areas.

The email says that "we in dispatch" contacted Mercy Air on the Raggins accident according to policy and "that is where it gets out of hand."

Mercy could not respond in time, so the emergency command center battalion chief ordered the OCFA helicopter be launched from Fullerton, said the email.

"The (command center) supervisor and the (battalion chief) were both advised by myself and at least 2 other dispatchers 4 or 5 times that the Duke (sheriff's) airship was at Loma Ridge Helipad and available," said the writer. "The ... (battalion chief) stated not to use the Duke ship regardless of them being closer and available. In addition the ... supervisor told the dispatchers, 'I don't want to hear anything more about it.' "

The email said sheriff's dispatch was contacted and the Air Call helicopter frequency was used to reach the sheriff's copter. The sheriff's crew stated it was available to respond.

"In the end, OCFA ignored and disregarded the closest available resource and this little boy died and he died because we failed him!" ended the email. The boy was pronounced dead at Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana.

'Troubled by revelations'

Wagner said the fire board was "troubled by these revelations" and will be discussing the matter in closed session on Jan. 28.

The Raggins incident triggered equally strong reaction from the former head of the sheriff's aviation crew, Sgt. William Fitzgerald.

"All of us in public safety should be ashamed of ourselves about this call," Fitzgerald wrote in an Aug. 29, 2019, email to Sheriff's Department colleagues.

It a separate email to his then-supervisor, Lt. Thomas Graham, Fitzgerald wrote: "We would have given the child the best chance for survival."

Vernon Raggins said he finds very little comfort in the notion that the Fire Authority apparently was following policy.

"If it's save someone else's life or save your policy, I'm learning toward saving someone's life."


(c)2021 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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