June 28, 2006

Justify Medevac Stall

The county got skunked in the past and doesn't want it to happen again. That's the reason officials gave for delaying the purchase of a fourth medevac helicopter last week.

As readers will recall, last week County Executive Steve Levy's press office heralded the news that the CE had authorized the purchase of a new medevac chopper. Once it lands this fall, the fleet would operate four choppers, one more than the last administration maintained, Levy's release contends.

That's not exactly true. At present, the county is running two choppers plus two MD-902s, problematic craft that last fall emergency services personnel admitted they are hesitant to fly. The helicopter Levy authorized last week will replace one MD, leaving another still on the tarmac. Levy's capital budget doesn't depict its replacement for several years, so South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman sponsored a budget amendment looking to move the purchase of the final bird forward.

Discussing the notion last week, Suffolk County Police Chief of Department Robert Anthony Moore characterized the purchase of the two MDs as one of Suffolk's "greatest fiscal blunders." He said he would be "far more comfortable" making sure the new chopper works well before purchasing another.

When Schneiderman mused that there could be a savings in purchasing two helicopters at once, Levy's liaison to the legislature Ben Zwirn said the last time the county bought two at the same time, the result was "less than desirable."

The county has presumably done its homework this time, the legislator pressed, asking the pair whether they had any reason to believe the replacement medevac is not a good craft. Levy's reps countered, stating that the current clunkers in the fleet came from a reputable company when they were purchased. Although both said the unreliable craft had been approved by a committee and were well considered, Legislator Wayne Horsley (D. Lindenhurst ) noted that volunteers in the fire services didn't like the MDs right from the beginning. East Hampton Town Councilwoman Pat Mansir has offered the same report from volunteers during discussion of the issue. At committee, Horsley said he wants to make sure "everyone is on board" with the new model.

Although Schneiderman said, "The time is now" to bring the fleet up to the level desired by emergency services, Legislator Vivian Fisher (D. East Setauket) moved to table the bill, with the majority of the committee in agreement with the notion of assessing the performance of the new chopper before committing to the purchase of the last one.

Asked by Schneiderman how long it would take to make the assessment, Chief Moore didn't answer. He said he couldn't give an exact timeframe, but allowed "we'll know fairly soon."

Earlier this year, the executive branch reported that when the new chopper does arrive, it will be based at Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach. Last week, Chief Moore said while all county medevacs do fly out of Westhampton periodically, the county facility there lacks the resources to maintain and clean the birds after medical calls.

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