Public Service

Probe Finds UK Police Aviation Needs Urgent Overhaul, Fleet Replacement

By S.L. Fuller | November 30, 2017

NPAS Eurocopter EC135

Photo by James via Flickr

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services just released an independent study on police air support. It is not exactly flattering of the law enforcement helicopters that serve England and Wales.

According to the inspectorate, the study was done following concerns from some police forces. The National Police Chiefs Council invited the inspectorate to probe the situation, and information from all 43 police forces in England and Wales was collected. Most police air support in those regions is provided by the National Police Air Service (NPAS).

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Her Majesty’s inspector of constabulary, Matt Parr, led the investigation. While commending air operations leaders, including NPAS, for “high levels of skill, dedication and commitment,” he said the study disclosed many issues.

“We found some fundamental problems with the current collaborative arrangements for police air support, which have led us to conclude that urgent change is required — if not a fresh approach entirely,” Parr said. “With the number of bases being halved and the number of aircraft being cut by a third in the last 10 years, savings have primarily been made by cutting the service provided to forces rather than increasing efficiency. An inconsistent service means that many incidents requiring air support are over before a police helicopter can arrive.

“Moreover,” he continued, “we are concerned that the police service now operates insufficient aircraft to provide a consistently prompt response to incidents in all forces in England and Wales.”

The report found the following:

  • “The level of service provided to many forces is lower than we expected to find, and many incidents are over before an aircraft can reach the scene.
  • “There is no clear evidence that current arrangements are financially any more or less efficient than when forces managed their own air supports, and costs are not shared equally between forces.
  • “NPAS in its current form is financially unsustainable: the capital investment strategy has left NPAS without adequate funding to replace its ageing fleet of aircraft.
  • “The police service needs to develop a common understanding of the demand for air support and its contribution to police effectiveness and efficiency. Only then can shared, evidence-based decision be made about the right mix of drones, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, and about collaboration with non-police partners.
  • “There is no up-to-date police air support strategy, and there is scope for improvement in policy, guidance and communication on air support.
  • “Current NPAS governance arrangements are unsatisfactory: the mechanisms for collaborative decision making are inadequate, and having the [police and crime commissioner] who is jointly responsible for priding NPAS services as a chair of the main decision-making group inhibits accountability.
  • “Police leaders urgently need to reconsider the arrangements for police air support.”

The inspectorate said the average response to a crime in action that did not involve an immediate threat to life takes more than 30 minutes. And in more than 40% of cases, police forces actually canceled their calls for support from an NPAS helicopter because it would have taken too long to arrive. However, NPAS meets its response time targets — the targets, however, are “too lenient,” the inspectorate said.

“On average, it took more than 10 minutes to dispatch an aircraft to the most urgent of calls and an average of almost 22 minutes to dispatch an aircraft to a crime in action,” he explained.

Use of drones also came up in the report. Most forces, the inspectorate said, have purchased unmanned aircraft systems (NPAS does not use them). However, police have not evaluated them well enough to decide what capabilities they could add to operations. “This brings the risk that the service will lack the evidence it needs to capitalize on the developments in drone capability that the government anticipates will occur in the coming years,” the inspectorate said.

The report did supply recommendations for each judgment. Basically, the inspectorate called for the police forces to develop a common understanding of demand and analyze how different forces use air support. It also recommended that the National Police Chiefs Council publish a review of the NPAS deployment process and that NPAS should come up with a fleet replacement plan in consultation with commissioners who fund NPAS operating costs.

Expanding on fleet replacement, the inspectorate said that thus far there haven’t been enough funds available to buy new aircraft. Instead, NPAS has invested in upgrades, which has resulted in aircraft nearing the end of their service lives with no plans to replace them. NPAS currently has a fleet of 19 helicopters with plans to add four fixed-wing aircraft. The service supports all 43 territorial police forces. The majority of flight hours are spent conducting search missions, either for suspects or missing persons.

“The report concludes that, while a single collaboration between the 43 forces across England and Wales remains an appropriate way of providing effective and efficient police air support, revising existing arrangements may not be practical or offer an opportunity to look for fresh ways to provide agreed levels of service,” the inspectorate said. “Police leaders are urged to consider the option of replacing the current collaboration agreement to ensure that improved arrangements can be put into place within the next three years.”

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