Military, Public Service

Getting Up

By Sgt. Ernest Stephens | November 1, 2004
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It's time. By your best estimates, your community is ready to get into the air. It is time to start a public safety helicopter unit! Getting your agency off the ground will not be a walk in the park, but those who have done it have a lot of good advice. According to most, step #1 is to call home and let them know that you will be a year or two late for dinner.

Unless you are the one who sits at the top of your organization's food chain, the first order of business is going to be selling the idea to the person who does. And make no mistake about it; "selling" is exactly what you will be doing. How to sell the idea of a helicopter unit depends upon whether you're trying to start a police, EMS or fire aviation operation.

Police Operations


For a police operation, the primary argument is that a helicopter will be a valuable crime-fighting tool. The most widely used figure is that one airborne flight crew has the patrolling capability of 30 ground officers. While these numbers are impressive, they tend to lose a lot of sparkle when administrators discover that the average price for a new helicopter is anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars for a piston aircraft to a couple of million dollars for a modestly equipped single-engine turbine ship.

Is there a way to ease the organization into adding flight services? Maryland's Anne Arundel County Police Department not only found a way to support its own operations, but to aid in supporting the police department in adjacent Howard County.

Cpl. Larry Walker is a 36-year veteran and chief pilot for the Anne Arundel County Police Department (AACPD), and one of very few people who has been around long enough to know every step of his helicopter unit's evolution.

"We started looking at helicopters back in 1972," said Walker, "but they felt it was beyond the needs of a 250-man department." Money was the issue. Enter Mr. Tom Parlett, a local operator of an old Hughes 269 single-engine piston helicopter.

In 1988, Parlett donated 100 hr. of flight time in his Hughes--complete with him at the controls--to AACPD. Parlett, with Walker as his observer, struck pay dirt on their very first patrol when they spotted a stolen boat and helped officers capture the five felons aboard. The worth of airborne law enforcement was becoming immediately apparent to administrative onlookers.

By 1996, a long list of airborne-generated apprehensions sold the county on the idea of patrolling its 512 sq. mi. of land and 500 mi. of shoreline with a permanent helicopter unit. At that time, the U.S. Army was virtually giving away its older OH-58A Kiowas, so AACPD was authorized the $500 needed to acquire six of the surplus OH-58s. Walker, who had since added a rotorcraft license to his fixed-wing ticket, became the chief pilot. He later got the money to have two of the olive drab aircraft painted white and upgraded with a flir, searchlights and new radio stacks. With two OH-58's flying and four more on hand for parts, the AACPD and a handful of pilots, including Parlett, who was still volunteering, amassed an impressive record of arrests.

Howard County, Anne Arundel County's neighbor to the northeast, entered into an agreement to occasionally "borrow" the AACPD aircraft to serve its 243,000 residents. The deal worked so well that Anne Arundel County added the Howard County Police seal to the aircraft and began using a mix of crewmembers from both police departments to cover the two counties.

In 2002, Walker reminded the county of their new homeland security duties as air support for the U.S. Naval Academy, the City of Annapolis and the super-secret National Security Agency headquarters. The county's response was to fund the purchase of a brand new Bell 407 with all the trimmings.

Cpl. Walker's advice to anyone starting a unit is straightforward. "Find a reasonable avenue to do it, and then work your [rear] off to sell it."

Deputy Sheriff Ralph Pierson of the Richland County (S.C.) Sheriff's Department was more fortunate than Walker. Half of the battle to start a unit is getting the agency head to buy into the idea--and Pierson won that fight without firing a shot when Leon Lott was elected sheriff. "The biggest thing was the sheriff," admitted Pierson. "Everything starts with him."

As a young investigator, Sheriff Lott had spent many hours in Richland County's surveillance-equipped Cessna 172 Sky Sentinel, so he already understood the tremendous value of airborne law enforcement. All that was left to do was for Pierson find a viable option for buying the agency's first helicopter.

In April of 2001, Deputy Pierson learned that a few hundred dollars would get Richland County a military surplus OH-58. When he explained that forfeited proceeds from drug arrests could make the old aircraft patrol-worthy, Sheriff Lott authorized the acquisition.

With one Cessna and one OH-58 in service over Richland County, which encompasses the City of Columbia, S.C., Pierson is optimistic about the future and the potential for increasing the department's helicopter fleet. "We're really in our infancy," he said. "In time we could possibly get more aircraft."

Emergency Medical Services

Justifying an EMS helicopter for any area is straightforward--deliver the patient to a quality medical facility within the "golden hour," that first 60 minutes when doctors say they have the best chance of saving a person's life. It represents public service in its most basic form. Complications arise, however, when the "who" and "for how much" questions find their way into the discussion.

Pitching the idea of a city, county or state-run EMS operation includes showing political leaders where and how they can obtain the necessary operating funds. Many government EMS operations are flown by the fire department, but in New Jersey and Maryland, the responsibility falls to the state police whose helicopters are used for medevac service as well as typical police helicopter operations.

The four New Jersey State Police Sikorsky S-76s used for medevac are primarily funded by tax dollars, with a little extra money coming from a portion of each vehicle registration fee. The opposite is true with the Maryland State Police, who get most of the funding for their 12 Eurocopter AS365-N Dauphins from vehicle registration fees and the rest from a conventional government budget.

EMS helicopter operations being sought for the exclusive use of a hospital have several options from which to choose. Some hospitals, including government-funded facilities, charge a separate fee for using their helicopter, which may include a certain amount of profit. Other trauma centers won't bill the patient for the chopper ride. Instead, they figure the aircraft pays for itself by bringing patients exclusively to that hospital--a big deal in the dog-eat-dog world of competing for business with other hospitals. (Just ask your local hospital administrator how tough it is to meet everyday operating expenses!)

Some jurisdictions either own or heavily underwrite the local hospital. In their case, the efficient operation of their EMS aircraft is extra important, because publicly funded hospitals also serve that community's poorest citizens-- citizens who frequently do not have the cash or insurance coverage to pay for the helicopter ride. This makes operating an EMS chopper even trickier.

"That's where we come in," proclaims Rick Hinkle, vice president and general manager of flight operations for Keystone Helicopter Services in West Chester, Pa. "We'll sit down with a client and try to understand what they wish to accomplish. From that information we will say `this is the sort of aircraft you should have'." Keystone, and companies like it, will then provide the hospital with a cost-efficient aircraft and support package.

One of Keystone's clients is Lehigh Valley Hospital, a non-profit medical center located in Allentown, Pa. Keystone Helicopter Services is contracted by Lehigh to provide them with a Sikorsky S-76 and pilot to fly patients to their level-one trauma center. Lehigh's administrators can then concentrate on managing the hospital and leave aircraft flight operations and repairs to Keystone.

How should a private or government hospital choose an outside company to manage their aviation program? Hinkle says, "Look for the companies who are heavily invested in the industry--who have lots of aircraft and support personnel."

Firefighting Operations

On the firefighting end of the spectrum, there are relatively few jurisdictions operating their own helicopters. As a matter of practicality, dedicating an aircraft to fire suppression can be even more expensive than having one for police work. Water, fire retardant and foam delivery systems can cost six figures and require special training to use.

Some agencies play both ends against the middle and equip their police helicopters with gear to carry "Bambi Buckets" for the occasional water drop.

The decision to purchase a dedicated firefighting helicopter for the City of Los Angeles came in the early 1980s, mostly because of a condition known as "urban interface." Urban interface occurs when homes and businesses are constructed in close proximity to fire-prone areas.

According to Paul Shakstad, chief pilot for the Los Angeles Fire Department, having an airborne firefighting platform is a must on the west coast and in southwestern states. "When we have a brush fire threaten homes, we need an immediate response."

Maybe a city the size of Los Angeles has the resources to operate six fire department aircraft, but few others do. In California, the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County firefighting aircraft are at the disposal of neighboring jurisdictions.

It is a continuation of the time-honored tradition of fire departments crossing jurisdiction boundaries for the purpose of saving lives and protecting property.

With "bang for the buck" always being a big selling point, demonstrating a multirole capability will go a long way. The LAFD's Bell Long Ranger and four Bell 412s have that covered.

Besides doing water and foam drops, their annual average of 400 missions flown includes delivering paramedics to remote areas, dropping fully equipped firefighters onto rooftops and serving as airborne command and control platforms. That's a pretty big bang by anyone's standard.

General Rules

The road to starting a public service helicopter unit is littered with sobbing, battle-weary martyrs who have spent years trying to get their jurisdiction into the air. The stories of successes and failures could fill a five-drawer file cabinet, but a few "do's and don't's" seem to be common to them all.

One of the big "do's" is to document the need for a helicopter, including examples of how others areas are using helicopters to make a positive change. Industry organizations such as the Helicopter Association International and the Airborne Law Enforcement Association offer seminars and workshops that can be very helpful in this area. They also provide a great way to meet people who have been successful in starting aviation units.

Under the "don't's", there is an interesting theory provided by Sgt. Scott May of the Lexington (Ky.) Police Department: Don't let a helicopter pilot pitch the idea of starting a helicopter unit. May recommends enlisting a non-pilot to advance the cause of starting a unit, especially if the administration isn't feeling warm and fuzzy about it yet. "If you can get someone who does not belong to the flying institution," May says, "they are not just a pilot who is looking for something to fly." Decision-makers will feel that a person with no interest in flying will be more objective about the benefits of a unit.

Many agencies have found that going to an outside aviation consultant can lead to success. Anne Arundel County hired a consulting company to assess their need to buy a brand-new aircraft and then readily accepted their recommendation.

A certain amount of trust was inherent because they were getting advice from someone other than a helicopter salesperson, or an enthusiastic in-house pilot.

Getting approval to start a helicopter operation can be a long, difficult road. The secret to success may lie in years of trying to convince the disinterested or just waiting for the right politician to come along. Whichever method it takes, the rewards are great--not just to the agency--but also to the people it serves.

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