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The Sonoma County Sheriff's Office this week is attempting to save the county's helicopter from mothballs by reducing hours, cutting staff and slashing the $1.9 million annual cost by a third.

The helicopter program, which began more than 40 years ago, was eliminated in a proposed budget issued by county administrators last week. The new maneuver is an eleventh-hour effort to convince the Board of Supervisors to tap into contingency funds to keep the helicopter in the air, but at a lower cost.

The budget's $42.8 million deficit poses perhaps the greatest threat to the helicopter program in its history, a period marked by recurring efforts to make it a casualty of the budget-cutting process.

The unit grew out of a private pilot's zeal in the late 1960s into a crew of highly skilled tactical officers, paramedics and a pilot trained to perform ocean and land rescues, assist law enforcement missions, fight wildfires and head the volunteer search and rescue team.

"Those of us in the Sheriff's Office working on this have been as creative as we can to get the cost down to just over half of what it was last year," Sheriff Steve Freitas said.

The helicopter, called Henry 1, was used 814 times during the 2009-10 fiscal year, including for 114 search and rescue missions and 494 law enforcement actions.

Supervisors will decide whether the helicopter's use during law enforcement and medical emergencies outweighs its high cost.

"Because of the geography that we have in Sonoma County, the rescue capability of our helicopter is critical to our primary mission," Freitas said. "It literally saves people's lives."

Under the proposed budget, the helicopter would be grounded for the budget year that starts July 1. The sheriff's office would pay about $350,000 to retain the airport hangar lease and a mechanic to perform minimal upkeep.

Deputies on the helicopter unit likely would be reassigned to patrol and other units. Several part-time paramedics, who all are working firefighters in Sonoma and Marin counties, would lose their contracts, as would Chief Pilot Paul Bradley, who has been with the unit for about eight years.

Several county supervisors have toured the Henry 1 hangar over the last few days as they consider whether to reach into one of three special reserve funds to keep the program running for the year.

Supervisor Valerie Brown, whose district includes Annadel State Park, a site of regular rescues, said she would support funding the helicopter at a reduced cost for a year to give sheriff's staff time to find alternative funding sources.

"Henry 1 is a valued service. There's no question about that," Brown said.

Sheriff's Office staff are brainstorming to create revenue sources, including grants and corporate sponsorships, said Lt. Tim Duke, who oversees the unit.

The helicopter crew could also contract with fire agencies to help provide air support for wildfires, a paying function the crew has performed in the past.

Volunteers with the sheriff's search and rescue team, who work under the helicopter crew, created a task force to launch fundraising efforts.

"We're trying to do everything we can to keep the helicopter program sustainable and save money, Duke said. "But our capabilities must remain the same."

The Henry 1 crew is known for its expertise in a specific kind of rescue with a fixed rope, called a long-line rescue. It's a technique that is of particular use along Sonoma County's deep ravines and rugged coast.

The pilot lowers tactical flight officers on 100 or 200 feet of rope into rough ocean water, tall stands of trees, cliffs and and other areas where victims might otherwise be hard to reach. The rescuer secures the victim in a harness and then the pilot lifts both people to safe ground.

Most agencies, including the CHP and Coast Guard, use a rope that is lowered from and raised back into the helicopter body. The method offers stability in rough conditions but requires much more time.

"For the time it'd take the CHP to rescue one person, (the Henry 1 crew) could do four or five, I bet. It's very efficient," said Jack Schonely, who runs a law enforcement helicopter training program in addition to his work as a command pilot with the Los Angeles Police Department.

When ocean conditions are too rough for a boat to reach someone, "the helicopter is the only tool that's viable for us," said Chief Danny Hervilla with the Mendocino Fire Protection District.

Speed is crucial during ocean rescues when water temperatures limit the time a person can survive while help is on the way, said Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman.

"If the victim isn't in immediate danger and can wait for us to get the ropes set up, then we can do it," Baxman said. "If they're in danger and need help quick, then the helicopter is the greatest thing in the world."

Henry 1 crew's ability to work fast saved a kayaker who became stuck in debris in the Russian River.

Vicki Richtman, 55, a personal trainer from Novato, got into the water April 1 at a Guerneville beach. About two miles down river Richtman's kayak got caught in a whirlpool near an island of submerged trees.

By the time someone heard her screams and called 911, Richtman said she was losing consciousness and would have been unable to rescue herself had a rescuer not been at the end of the helicopter's rope.

<NO1><NO>"There was no charge for my rescue, but I was prepared for a huge bill. And while I dreaded it I gladly would have paid it, my life is worth it," Richtman said.


CORRECTION: June 9, 2011

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction.

Because of an editing error, a story on Tuesday mischaracterized the duration of the Sonoma County Sheriff's Office helicopter program. It began more than 40 years ago.

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