Note: a retirement ceremony was scheduled for Dana Morris at the Flagler County airport Friday, Nov. 18, in late afternoon.
Dana Morris and FireFlight weren’t exactly a package deal when Flagler County bought the helicopter in January 2002 for $1.5 million (what would be $2.5 million today), but close. The veteran chopper pilot was asked shortly after its purchase to fly the 1998 Eurocopter AS-350 B3 for the county temporarily until the position could be permanently filled.
Morris never stopped flying, fighting fires, saving lives, and serving as law enforcement’s eagle eye from the skies.
Twenty years and more than 12,500 flight hours later, Morris will power down the rotorcraft one last time as its pilot on November 13, five days before his official retirement after 43 years of flying.
“Our history together goes back further than the 20 years each of us have been here,” Morris said, reflecting on his career in Flagler County. “I was working for the company that sold the county FireFlight, assigned to firefighting and as a search-and-rescue pilot in Yosemite (National Park, California).”
“Dana is the best pilot we have ever had on FireFlight,” said Roy Longo, a Fire Rescue flight medic with Morris for 10 years. Longo retired in December 2019 after over 30 years with the county and over 500 missions on Fire Flight. “Not taking away from any other pilot who has worked for the county, but Dana was the one who flew the helicopter to Flagler and he never left. Personally I loved flying with Dana. He knew when to be serious and when have fun. Never did I feel unsafe even when we landed in some tight landing areas. He will be missed by everyone in the flight program as well as the county.”
The Flagler County Commission decided to buy FireFlight in the aftermath of the ’98 wildfires in Flagler County, which ravaged the area. It was the first time in American history that an entire county was evacuated due to wildfire. During those fires 71 homes were destroyed, and another 175 homes were damaged. The County Commission approved buying the contract with Roberts Aviation of Golden, Colo., at its Aug. 6, 2001 meeting.
It was not a decision without controversy. These days the public is clamoring for 24-hour FireFlight service (it operates 12 hours, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., when it’s in service). Back then, the commission faced some heated questions from residents wondering whether the purchase was necessary.
Even Dick Kelton, Palm Coast’s city manager at the time, questioned the buy before going along. “We raised some questions; the county’s answered them,” Kelton said at the time. “It’s over.” But that was in the context of one of the two government’s recurring pissing matches, coming on the heels of a battle between the two sides over Palm Coast accusing the county of double taxation and the county firing back that the city was, in the words of then-Commissioner Hutch King, “the one that made the choice to double tax with its plan for a fire station in an area that’s already covered by nine full-time firefighters at the airport.” (King has generally thought of Palm Coast the way Taiwan thinks of China: Not amicably.)
Palm Coast, Flagler Beach and Bunnell had all criticized the county for buying Fireflight without consulting them first. All that was soon forgotten, and by 2011, when FireFlight was likely the main reason the county did not lose a single structure during the severe wildfires that season, the helicopter and its crew was roundly admired.
It had a few miraculous asists during that fire season, in one case dropping water buckets on a fire that had moved within a few feet of a house in Seminole Woods. Between FireFlight above and firefighters from Palm Coast and the county below, the house was saved. (See: “Miracle on Sligo Mill Court: Homes Saved From Another Seminole Woods Eruption.”) The helicopter that season would conduct daily flight patrols across the county, monitoring any flare-ups, and preventing the spread of fires once detected.
In fact, not a single occupied home has been lost to fire since FireFlight’s acquisition, including during the fires of 2007 and 2011.
Since its purchase, FireFlight has dropped about 2 million gallons of a water and foam mixture from its “Bambi bucket” – or about 8,653 bucket drops – for fire suppression, according to the county. Reconnaissance and fire suppression combined account for 54 percent of its usage by flight hours, and 49 percent of its number of flights (trips).
“I didn’t necessarily expect to be here, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the job full-time. My mother lived in Florida, so I accepted it to be near my mother,” Morris said, who has a thirst for adventure. It was his recreational passion that led to his eventual career: a 1978 trip to British Columbia, Canada, to go helicopter skiing.
Morris’s work with helicopters led to stints at the Grand Canyon, New Guinea, Australia, Berma, Yemen, most of the western United States including Alaska.
“Flagler County was, and still is, growing,” Morris said. “Though its primary mission is fire suppression, FireFlight, of course, is equipped for medical flights and to assist law enforcement. It’s equipped with an infrared camera for use during nighttime operations.”
FireFlight is part of a separate Flight Operations division under Flagler County Fire Rescue. Its budget in 2020, the last full year when FireFlight was not out of service for long periods, as it was in 2021, was $384,000. Its budget this year was $325,000. Its budget next year is a tentative $359,999, with salaries and benefits accounting for $327,000 of that. Repairs, maintenance and insurance account for $206,000, fuel and oil for $55,000.
The county is hoping to buy a new helicopter before long. The helicopter replacement fund currently has $1.25 million in reserve, with an additional $250,000 budgeted for the coming year, assuming the County Commission’s decision to “blow up” the budget at the last minute, last week, by lowering the property tax rate and imposing numerous onerous conditions on making up the lost dollars, doesn’t derail that plan.
The number of times Fireflight airlifted a victim to a hospital after a car crash, a fall or a gunshot, or helped find someone who was lost in the wilderness, can likely be documented. The number would be in the hundreds.
Morris recalls an early mission – probably 2003 – where he, FireFlight, and his flight medic rescued a lost hunter who was having heart problems.
“He was lost in the woods in an area where it would be difficult to get to him with an ambulance,” Morris said. “It was nighttime, dark, and the hunter was able to position the phone so we could see it. Between that and the reflection off his clothing, we were able to get right to him. We loaded him up and went straight to the hospital (that is now AdventHealth Palm Coast).”
Morris was being modest. His flight medic, Lt. Chris Smith, was the Palm Coast Lions Club Flagler County’s Paramedic of the Year for that rescue in 2003. Then Fire Chief Joseph Powell said: “”On Nov. 12, 2003, FireFlight Pilot Dana Morris and Flight Medic Lieutenant Chris Smith were Airborne, conducting NightSun training in a remote area of Flagler County. The crew was routinely monitoring dispatch and overheard a call for emergency medical assistance in the southern part of the county. The call was related to a hunter being down in the woods with a cardiac problem and he was incapacitated to the extent that he could not walk and was prone on the ground next to a deer he had shot and had been straining to remove from the thick woods prior to the onset of his cardiac emergency. The hunter had only a small radio that he could communicate with, as well as a flashlight. He had informed the person who had intercepted his call for help that he could not advise of his location other than he was deep in the woods.
“…The pilot was able to sit the helicopter down in a small area nearby, after which Flight Medic Smith proceeded on the ground to the patient and began life saving medical care. He was able to stabilize the patient in this remote and rough terrain, after which he was loaded onto the helicopter and transported to Florida Hospital-Flagler within a six minute time frame.”
But that was one of the incidents that drew headlines. Most don;t, and still have the same result: a life saved. Morris has a scrapbook of old-school newspaper clips and letters of commendation highlighting notable events of their tenure together in Flagler County.
“This has been a great job and I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of talented people,” Morris said. “It’s been a memorable and great ride.”
FireFlight by the numbers 2002 through September 2021 (which include the numbers of Flagler County Pilot Todd Whaley), not counting lives saved and property saved:
Total Flights (Trips) – 5,786
EMS – 718
Reconnaissance – 2,142
Fire Suppression – 720
Law Enforcement – 613
Maintenance Flights – 177
Search and Rescue – 259
Training – 749
Community Service – 408
Total Flights Hours – 4,285.2
EMS – 415.5
Reconnaissance – 1,462.0
Fire Suppression – 885.6
Law Enforcement – 465.5
Maintenance Flights – 107.0
Search and Rescue – 190.2
Training – 584.3
Community Service – 211.1
Gallons of Water/Foam Dropped – 1,817,159
Buckets Dropped – 8,653
EMS Transport Revenue – $2,934,967
[This article originally published on Sept. 15, 2022.]