San Diego Wants Money for Chopper Rescues


San Diego taxpayers are footing the bill for an expensive emergency service that is also critical to city safety.

Amid another looming budget gap for the city of San Diego, a new push is under way to help recover the costs of using its fire helicopters for rescues and medical transports.

From a paraglider on a cliff to a hiker on a mountain, the lifesaving can be costly -- about $3,900 for every flight hour.

In the fiscal year 2010, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's Copter 1 and Copter 2 flew 81 medical transport missions, logging more than 60 flight hours. 10News learned the $234,000 tab was paid by taxpayers.

SDFRD Chief Javier Mainar said the bill doesn't make a lot of sense.

"While we can seek reimbursement for medical transports for ground ambulances, we can't when we use one of our helos to transport a patient," said Mainar.

According to an FAA rule, public agencies can't charge for flights. The rule states only commercial entities can bill for the service. It is a rule some believe is designed to protect private industry.

Local fire authorities wrote to the FAA for permission to charge insurance companies for the transports -- a request that was denied.

"All we're asking for is an exemption," said San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald.

Emerald has now joined the fight, writing a letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein for help in changing some minds. Fire agencies in Miami are also pressuring the FAA.

"We don't want to make a profit. We just want to cover our basic costs," said Emerald. "We are operating emergency medical operations … and should be able to recover our costs for that."

The city of San Diego is facing a $40 million budget gap in fiscal year 2012, with more budget cuts looming.

"All of the money for the transports is from the general fund, which goes to pay for police, fire, roads and other basic services," said Emerald.

10News learned Feinstein's staff has received the letter and has begun to look into the issue.

Insurance experts said if the FAA rule changes, the extra charges would likely increase insurance premiums.

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