State board approves $72 million helicopter contract

The Maryland Board of Public Works approved a $72 million contract Wednesday to purchase six new helicopters — larger and faster than those the state police now fly — to begin the replacement of the state's emergency medical fleet.

The three-member board unanimously ratified the contract with Agusta Aerospace Corp. of Philadelphia, the only company among four manufacturers that submitted a final bid. The contract includes an option for the state to acquire up to six more AW139 helicopters at the same price of $11.7 million each, plus an inflation adjustment.

Capt. Mark Gibbons, head of the State Police Aviation Command, said Maryland officials made repeated efforts to attract other bids. But after receiving only one, he said, officials negotiated a price that was $1.6 million less per helicopter than New Jersey State Police paid a year ago.

After the vote, Comptroller Peter Franchot said that while he joined Gov. Martin O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp in approving the contract, he was concerned that the public would never know whether it had received the best deal.

"We cannot just end up with one bid envelope on the table," he said. "That, to me, is a failure of the procurement process."

But Franchot said he voted "yes" because of the consequences of rejecting it. "This contract will finally pay for itself every time a person's life is saved," he said.

O'Malley said the contract had been thoroughly vetted. "I don't think there was any procurement process that was subjected to more scrutiny and debate in the state of Maryland," he said.

O'Malley, other elected officials and leaders of the state's police and emergency medical services held a news conference Wednesday afternoon at Lee Airport in Edgewater to celebrate what they called the long-awaited purchase of the new helicopters — the first of which is to be delivered in about 18 months.

On display was an AW139 supplied by Agusta for the event. The new helicopter is larger than the current Dauphin model, which was also on display. State police said the AW139 can transport two patients, while the Dauphins have room for only one.

The AW139s are designed to be operated by a pilot and co-pilot — an added cost that state officials say is necessary for safety. A single pilot was in control of a state police Dauphin helicopter that crashed near Andrews Air Force Base in September 2008, killing four. That incident, which the National Transportation Safety Board ascribed to pilot error, prompted an examination of Maryland's emergency flight procedures.

That November, an expert panel recommended that Maryland reduce the roughly 4,000 emergency flights it was making each year and let ambulances respond in more cases. Gibbons said officials have complied with that recommendation and cut the number of flights by about half by tightening protocols for an aerial response.

The panel suggested a re-examination of how many helicopters the state needs but did not make a specific recommendation. A task force is expected to report by Dec. 1 on what it considers the optimal number of copters for the state to operate and where they should be based to provide statewide coverage.

In March 2009, a House of Delegates work group recommended replacement of the current fleet, though it suggested that the state could provide coverage with fewer copters than the 12 it was operating before the 2008 crash.

A handful of General Assembly members had said the purchase was too costly, but a majority of legislators accepted the arguments of the state police and advocates for the state's emergency medical system that the Dauphin fleet must be replaced. The Dauphins are 11 to 21 years old.

One of the companies that was invited to bid, American Eurocopter, filed a bid protest in September 2009, alleging that the bid specifications left the result preordained. But after the Maryland Department of Transportation denied the protest, the company dropped the matter.

Critics of the purchase contended that the state could have saved money by rehabilitating its fleet of Dauphin helicopters, but the O'Malley administration said an overhaul would not be cost-effective and that the trade-in value would fall as the aircraft reached the 20-year mark.

The board took the relatively unusual step of allowing a private citizen, Richard Johnson of Catonsville, to speak in opposition to the contract. Johnson, who has waged a sometimes lonely campaign against the purchase, said the state cannot afford to buy new helicopters.

"We can refurbish these Dauphins. We can make them more economical," he said.

But according to the state police, it would cost $9 million to $10 million each — and take each copter out of service for six months — to refurbish the Dauphins to the specifications demanded by the Federal Aviation Administration for rescue helicopters.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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