ANNAPOLIS -- A committee headed by the lieutenant governor unanimously recommended yesterday that the state spend $10 million to purchase two more French-made medevac helicopters to be stationed permanently in Southern Maryland and on the upper Eastern Shore.
The decision by the Maryland Executive Helicopter Advisory Committee, backed by a study that shows gaps in medevac coverage in those two rural areas, should end a political dispute that as recently as yesterday sparked a confrontation between Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg and his boss, Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
When the advisory committee arrived for its 9 a.m. meeting, Governor Schaefer was unexpectedly there, waiting. Demanding to speak first, the governor said the lingering debate over whether the expensive but faster Dauphin helicopters should replace the older Bell Jet Rangers stationed at the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center and in Centreville in Queen Anne's County "has turned into a political football, which is an embarrassment to me."
"I don't want this to continue on. I want this decided, and I want it decided quickly," the governor said.
Mr. Steinberg tried unsuccessfully to interrupt the governor to tell him that a vote on the issue was already on the committee's agenda and that the new helicopters were likely to be approved.
"It was a little like showing up at sunrise and demanding that the sun come up," Delegate Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, a member of the advisory committee, said after the meeting.
To buy the two new helicopters before an option for additional purchases expires Dec. 31, the state will have to come up with a 10 percent down payment, or about $1 million.
Mr. Steinberg, indicating support from state Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, expressed confidence that the money would be found "within the next 30 days." Mr. Goldstein is from Southern Maryland, and Mr. Mitchell is from the upper Eastern Shore.
Contract approval is still required by the Board of Public Works, which includes Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Goldstein among its three members. But the first of the two new helicopters could be delivered as early as next spring, with the second following a month later, Mr. Steinberg said.
In the meantime, the state may investigate leasing or otherwise providing round-the-clock Medevac coverage at Centreville and at the Patuxent River naval air base near Solomons, Mr. Steinberg said. The Bell Jet Rangers currently located at those two locations are restricted to flying in daylight hours because of their limited capabilities.
"In Southern Maryland, it did not become a political football. People weren't pointing fingers," said Sen. James C. Simpson, D-Charles. "Our people just couldn't understand what was happening -- why we went from 24-hour coverage to part-time coverage."
Although there has been political pressure to buy new aircraft for Southern Maryland and the upper Eastern Shore ever since the number of medevac bases in the state was cut from eight to six because of the greater speed and range of the Dauphin helicopters, Mr. Steinberg said that the committee could not act until it had collected sufficient data to justify such a decision.
Ironically, when Mr. Steinberg's committee originally recommended the purchase in 1988 of the expensive, state-of-the-art Dauphin models to replace the much smaller Bell Jet Rangers, one of the selling points was that the state could get by with fewer bases. Mr. Steinberg said the original recommendation had failed to take into account the frequency of water-related rescues requiring Medevac flights. Nor, he said, did the earlier recommendation adequately consider the fact that rural areas often cannot provide the same level of initial medical care for patients that is available in more urban areas.