Report 99119 Summary - November 1999

Los Angeles City Fire Department:

The City Can Do More to Enhance the Safety and Effectiveness of Its Air Operations Unit

RESULTS IN BRIEF

The recent crashes of three Los Angeles City Fire Department (department) helicopters have prompted concerns about the safety of its helicopter operations and compelled the Legislature to request this audit. Legislators wanted to know whether the department's policies and procedures governing the use of its helicopters compare favorably to similar operations at other agencies, whether it properly trains its aircrews, and whether the air operations (air ops) unit has an adequate safety program.

The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the causes of two of these crashes-one of which killed four people-therefore, we cannot conclude on that issue. We have found aspects of the department's helicopter operations where safety is a concern, however, particularly in the department's staffing and training policies. The department has attempted to save on personnel costs by assigning new pilots, aircrew support personnel (helitacs), and paramedics to ground fire stations. The air ops unit should be these aircrew members' primary assignment, yet they only serve the air ops unit on an on-call basis. As a result of this "doubling up" of assignments, new pilots find their training opportunities are restricted. Similarly, paramedics and helitacs get only limited training with air ops and its pilots. Limited training opportunities may increase the underlying operational risk for all aircrew personnel. New pilots face a further disadvantage because their part-time availability to air ops prolongs the time it takes for them to acquire sufficient flight hours to upgrade into the unit's primary aircraft, the Bell 412.

Delays are another serious problem resulting from the department's staffing methods. Air ops missions can be delayed from 3 to 10 minutes because the flights must wait for aircrew members to arrive from other locations. By January 2000, the department plans to partially resolve this issue by assigning paramedics to the air ops facility on a full-time basis; however, it must still address staffing for new pilots and helitacs.

By modifying its staffing of air ops commanders as well as of its aircrew members, the department could enhance its effectiveness and help reduce its operational risk. The department currently limits the air ops commander to a two-year assignment and does not staff a chief pilot position. The commanders' relatively short tenures causes them to focus on short-term issues at the expense of policy development and continuity that could contribute to long-term stability and effectiveness in the unit's operations. Additionally, although a trained firefighter, the commander is not a pilot and is not familiar with aviation operations. Consequently, it takes the designee considerable time to become familiar with the particulars of running an aviation unit. The unit's administration could be helped considerably if the department would also appoint a chief pilot to assist the commander and to serve as the final point of command for flight operations.

Another area of concern is related to the department not consistently funding training for its helicopter pilots. Although it reinstituted simulator training, a standard industry practice, in 1998, the department did not fund this training from 1993 through 1997. The air ops unit should also establish a formal training program for its pilots with regularly scheduled flight safety meetings. While the training program for pilot trainees at air ops is intense, the recurring training program for its graduates provides significantly fewer activities and opportunities for them to continue developing their skills. A more intensive regular training program including ground simulators, classroom courses, and periodic flight-safety meetings would be a positive step in minimizing the risk inherent in all aviation operations.

In addition, the lack of a helicopter replacement policy may further affect the overall safety of the air ops unit. The department's older helicopters are at times less effective in meeting its various missions and create an increasing maintenance burden. Older helicopters lack the new technology and safety equipment to reduce some of the department's risk in performing its missions of fire suppression, air ambulance, and search and rescue. In addition, older helicopters' maintenance costs increase significantly. A long-term replacement policy would allow the department to plan to retire older aircraft that less effectively meet its needs.

The department is attempting to remedy some of the problems that compromise the safety of its helicopter operations. Following the second helicopter crash in March 1998, it commissioned a comprehensive assessment of its air operations activities. Based on this review and numerous recommendations from outside entities, the department has improved some aspects of its air operations. It has resumed simulator training, purchased three replacement helicopters, and revised its staffing policy for paramedics. In addition, air ops aircraft began operating at its new temporary facility. This relocation eliminated its previously restricted departure and approach routes and significantly improved the safety of both. Many of the recommendations we are making are also included in the department's own internal study of its aviation operation.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The department should take these steps:

  • Review and revise its staffing policies and patterns to permit all aircrew members to be stationed at the air ops unit.

  • Require the air ops unit to review and formalize its policies to ensure it has standard operational guidelines; clear lines of operational authority and responsibility; and a formal, regularly scheduled flight safety program.

  • Implement a helicopter replacement program to ensure that helicopters are replaced when they are no longer economical to maintain or become inappropriate for the department's needs.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The department concurred with all our recommendations. However, the department felt that we either did not sufficiently emphasize or omitted certain issues which they consider critical for improving the operational capabilities and effectiveness of its air ops unit. Specifically, the department believes that its recent efforts to remedy some of the deficiencies of its aviation operation and the poor condition of the facility currently being replaced by a new temporary facility should receive additional acknowledgment.

The Los Angeles City Department of General Services that maintains the city's air fleet agreed with our comments. Additionally, it expressed concern that the inadequacies of the maintenance and repair facility will be compounded as the city adds larger, multi-bladed helicopters to its fleet.


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