‘Piecemeal’ public safety risks lives in Broward | Editorial

The horrible sight of a Broward Sheriff’s Office fire-rescue helicopter spiraling helplessly out of control in the skies over Pompano Beach is etched in our minds.

But what we saw and learned after the fatal accident was even more disturbing.

On the morning of Aug. 28, the chopper appeared to experience catastrophic mechanical failure and crashed into an apartment building near the intersection of Atlantic Boulevard and Dixie Highway.

Killed were Capt. Terryson Jackson, 49, a 19-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, and Lurean Wheaton, 65, who was in her apartment when the chopper nosedived through the building’s roof. A native of Anderson, S.C., she had lived in Pompano Beach since 1988. Two BSO crew members also aboard the helicopter survived the crash.

A full investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will determine the exact cause. But it’s a legitimate question whether the workhorse helicopter should have been in the air that morning, based on its age and service record.

Deflecting responsibility

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Sheriff Gregory Tony and county commissioners engaged in a familiar round of finger-pointing. Tony accused commissioners and the county administration of refusing to provide money for a replacement helicopter at a cost of about $15 million.

But county officials said the sheriff never put the request in writing, and that’s how it’s supposed to be done. (Tony had no problem making written requests for replacement two-way police radios, patrol cars and other equipment.)

At a budget discussion three months ago, the need for a new helicopter came up, but only briefly and in general terms. The sheriff went out of his way to say that County Administrator Monica Cepero and her deputy, Michael Ruiz, had been cooperative in preliminary talks on the need for a new helicopter.

But the warning signs were ominous, and they go back years.

Sell it, consultant said

Six years earlier, a consultant warned the county and sheriff that the 1999 Airbus EC-135T1 helicopter needed replacing, and that Broward should have sold it while its resale value was high.

The March 2017 report by Law Enforcement Aviation Consultants said the helicopter “just completed its first engine overhaul in December 2016 and transmission in February 2017. Having been manufactured in 1999, it has also completed its 12-year inspection. Given the airframe and engine times on this aircraft, it is also at its optimal resale value.”

That was six-and-a-half years ago, when Tony’s predecessor, Scott Israel, was sheriff.

The consultant’s report gathered dust. The helicopter stayed in the air.

Tony himself told commissioners at the budget workshop in June that the aircraft was at its end of life stage. Referring to the aircraft that would crash, he said: “The fire-rescue helicopter that we’re utilizing has been around since 1999. We’ve been piecemealing parts for years to maintain flight capability.”

The conversation moved on to other topics.

Commissioners agreed Thursday to spend an estimated $15 million for a new helicopter. They also endorsed a program to pay up to $25,000 in death benefits to the families of police, firefighters or emergency medical technicians killed in the line of duty.

Thorough review needed

But that’s not enough.

Commissioners need to conduct a thorough post-mortem with the sheriff and learn as much as possible about the condition of the other two helicopters in BSO’s aviation unit. This shouldn’t be difficult, but commissioners seem reluctant to engage Tony in public because the two sides have a contentious history.

Less than three weeks before the helicopter crash, Tony fired off an angry letter to Broward Mayor Lamar Fisher, accusing commissioners of jeopardizing public safety by underfunding his request for more public safety positions.

BSO’s next budget of nearly $700 million is a 10% increase, and will consume more than half of all property taxes collected from Broward homeowners. The sheriff is an independently elected constitutional officer, but he can’t set his own budget. That’s the commission’s job. Political battles over spending between sheriffs and commissioners are nothing new.

In a recent TV interview, Mayor Fisher made it clear that Tony’s interest in a replacement helicopter was verbal — not a formal written request.

“This really had been conversation only,” Fisher told WPLG Channel 10’s Glenna Milberg on This Week in South Florida. “But last Monday (Aug. 28), it really hit home.”

A flurry of lawsuits is certain to ensue from this tragedy. And on Friday, thousands turned out for a memorial service in Sunrise to honor the memory of Capt. Jackson, who began his career with Deerfield Beach Fire-Rescue in 2004 and was well-liked for his friendly demeanor and helpful spirit.

After his death, Jackson was posthumously promoted to the rank of Battalion Chief. He was the 29th member of the Broward Sheriff’s Office to die in the line of duty.

The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, editorial writer Martin Dyckman and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at letters@sun-sentinel.com.