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Hard-Learned Lessons

By Douglas W. Nelms | July 1, 2006
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Back-to-back hurricanes along the U.S. Gulf Coast showed how tough and resilient law enforcement aviation units can be. They also showed where the weakest links were.

Faster, more powerful helicopters, hoists, datalink cameras and more effective radios are topping the wish list for U.S. law enforcement aviation units following last year's devastating hurricanes along the Gulf Coast.

To say that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caught the Gulf Coast by surprise would be an understatement. Law enforcement agencies from Georgia to Louisiana were suddenly faced with a "It's what you do with what you've got that counts" situation. While hard work, long hours and heroic efforts managed to get the units through the crises, the biggest issue now is "How do we prepare for the next one?"


The Airborne Law Enforcement Assn. (ALEA) has, in fact, added a panel on that very subject to its annual meeting July 19-22 in New Orleans. The panel is being headed by Jim Di Giovanna, recently retired captain of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office and commander of its Aero Bureau.

Di Giovanna said the plan is to have panelists "who were intimately involved in (the hurricane aftermath) at the federal, state and local level." These include Sheriff Henry Lee from Jefferson Parish, La. along with representatives from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the emergency operations center in New Orleans.

The panel, slated for 1-3 p.m. July 20 in New Orleans' Morial Convention Center, will discuss "the activities that were going on, lessons learned, what we are changing, what we are doing now and how we are preparing for future disasters using aviation assets," Di Giovanna said.

One of the key areas of discussion will be the need for better communication, he said. "This is, first and foremost, the thing most needed." A major problem responders faced during the crisis was a communications infrastructure disabled by the storm. Beyond that, many airborne responders lacked equipment in their aircraft to communicate with other units in the air and those on the ground. "We were relying on the ability to talk with each other on VHF radios, but we didn't have the ability to communicate with anybody on the ground. That was principally because of the incompatibility of some of the frequencies and communication capabilities that were on board the aircraft."

Di Giovanna said the crews his unit sent to the New Orleans area from Los Angeles had to carry a white board on which they could write "Come up frequency such and such," so they could talk to other helicopters. "There just wasn't a good sense of being able to communicate and coordinate."

Maj. Robert Woods, commander of the Land, Air, Sea Emergency Rescue unit for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office, said his crews would set up landing zones on highways, spray-ainting the controlling frequency on the road.

So one of the greatest lessons learned was from the incompatibility of radios, Di Giovanna said. Most civilian aircrews could not talk with the military aircraft operating in the area because the police aircraft only had VHF radios, which are not compatible with the UHF units on military aircraft. Nor did many of the military aircraft have VHF units. "So my crews ran into problems going into some of the military bases because the only way they could communicate was via UHF," Di Giovanna said, "and of course we didn't have UHF radios on board."

As a result, L.A. County "is now putting UHF radios on board our H-3 aircraft," he said.

Brett McCloud, command pilot for the Louisiana State Police Air Support Unit, acknowledged that initially "it was mass chaos," but that it wasn't long before pilots operating in the same vicinity began shifting to the air-to-air VHF frequency 123.45 MHz.

"So a lot of it was done the old-fashioned way."

The second major issue under discussion at the "Katrina: Lessons Learned" session will be the lack of mission coordination. "That took some time to get into place," Di Giovanna said. Early on, mission activities largely involved the many helicopter crews in the area going out and assisting the best they could. It was several days into the operation before crews began getting mission assignments from commanders overseeing rescue and relief operations. "Initially it was bedlam. There were aircraft everywhere. The system was completely overtaxed."

The military did come in and try to establish some level of command and control. The U.S. Air Force had an airborne warning and control aircraft handling some airspace management after temporary flight restrictions were imposed over storm-struck areas. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency also came in with a P-3 "that was able to communicate with many of the aircraft because they had a much greater band of radios that was available to them, so they were able to do a lot of mission coordination and mission control," he said. The P-3 operated under the call sign "Omaha" and allowed separate air units to communicate and coordinate with each other or with their own units on the ground.

McCloud noted an incident in which one of his crews spotted some people in a church. There was little the pilot could do in his Bell 206, "so he called up Omaha, relaying the coordinates. Within 5 min. there were five or six lift ships coming in there to get those people out."

Along with showing the need for more compatible radios, the Gulf Coast emergencies also showed the need for hoists on board law enforcement helicopters. "We're starting to see most agencies, when they are starting to spec out aircraft, they are including hoists because you never know when that mission might come about," Di Giovanna said. "Before, many agencies never considered hoist operations to be something they would be involved in doing. But I think in light of what we've seen in Katrina and Rita, and the need for utility aircraft that have the ability to conduct hoist operations, we are seeing more agencies that are checking out hoists."

Kristopher Helton, chief trooper pilot for the Alabama Department of Public Safety's Aviation Unit, said his unit is now considering getting a Bell 407 that would give it the higher payload to rescue people either with hoists or, perhaps more effectively, rescue nets. The unit has one 206L-1 and seven OH-58A+s.

"I saw a lot of the Coast Guard and military using rescue hoists down at New Orleans," Helton said. "I'm sure under certain circumstances a rescue hoist is the best option. But I feel that they could have gotten them off faster with the Billy Pugh rescue nets."

His unit has a four-man rescue net, but the payload capability of the Bell 206 barely allows it "to realistically carry two, maybe three folks. A 407 would allow us to easily carry four people plus a crew of two, plus substantial fuel." It would also allow a faster response time, he said.

The Alabama Public Safety Dept. Aviation Unit serves cities in that state that regularly flood "not because of hurricanes, but because of heavy rains. There is one city south of Montgomery that has flooded two or three times just since I've been with the department," which is 17 years. "In situations like that, we need something so that we can do some rescues, that we can do personnel recovery."

The Alabama unit has not significantly changed its training program or operational procedures as a result of last year's hurricanes, although Helton said it needs to increase its long-line training, particularly dealing

with the Billy Pugh rescue nets it uses. He is also looking at what might be needed in the future in terms of personnel recovery.

The Alabama trooper said his unit is now in the process of trying to get funding from the U.S. Homeland Security Dept. for the new helicopter. "We'd like to get about $2.5 million. That would put us on course for a 407."

Di Giovanna said the Airborne Law Enforcement Assn. is attempting to do a grass-roots effort aimed at establishing a program specific to airborne law enforcement that would allow agencies to apply for grants that would be non-competitive, allowing them to either modernize their fleet or upgrade the technologies in their existing fleet with state-of-the-art equipment, including radios and other communications capabilities.

"Right now, there are no dedicated, earmarked funds specific to aviation law enforcement or aviation in general," he said. "That is something we are trying to get changed."

The ability to broadcast visual information to ground units in real time was also something that would have been a major asset in the aftermath of Katrina, McCloud of the Louisiana State Police air unit said. His unit had just installed CD recorders in their helicopters, but had programmed them for short play. His unit essentially flies reconnaissance-type helicopters in keeping with their role in the Louisiana State Police structure. The unit has a 206-L4, 206-B3 and three ex-military OH-58s, plus two Bell 430s. During the landfall of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that followed it, his pilots went out and videotaped the events. But getting that imagery to incident commanders was harder, and therefore slower, than it should have been. Aircrews had to return the recordings to the hangar and figure out how to download them onto a disk. The imagery then had to be dropped off at the emergency operations center, where it had to be downloaded again into the system there. The whole process, from launch of an aircraft with recorders on board until the people who needed to review the imagery to assess the situation could actually see it, took about 4 hr.

"We actually risked our lives to go out and get that video," McCloud said. "So it was very frustrating to get back and have to go through all the things to download it, then walk into a room and find everyone is seeing better, clearer pictures from CNN helicopters shooting pictures back. I was thinking that we could have been doing that 4 hr. ago."

That showed the need for direct, real-time video feed to ground commanders, he said. He added that incident commanders don't need a video camera that shoots the downlink all the way across the state. "You can have the one that just shoots it to the mobile command post within a certain radius. That would have really helped us here, considering that we were caught off guard. It would give the commander the flexibility of being able to communicate directly with us and tell us exactly what it is he wants to see. It would be real-time reconnaissance."

If there was any one thing he would like to change, McCloud said, it would be to give the aviation unit the ability to perform personnel recovery. In Louisiana, that is now done exclusively by the U.S. Coast Guard, with the State Police air unit doing strictly police work. So preparing for personnel recovery "would be a big change for us," he said. "In this state, everything is pretty much divided out. Everyone has their mission to do, and they go out and do it. But we would like to develop some way to handle personnel recovery. We've been Bell people for a long time, so we're looking at the Bell 412 or a 212-type machine."

While law enforcement aviation units are trying to get funds for the equipment they need, whether new aircraft or hoists and radios, funds are available through FEMA for reimbursement of costs associated with the hurricanes' aftermath. One official told Rotor & Wing that responding agencies have simply put in for reimbursement of aviation costs as a line item along with all the other costs sustained by their unit, ranging from personnel overtime to fuel for police cars. However, McCloud pointed out that to get money back from FEMA, you have to have spent it and you have to have a receipt. "Then they will reimburse you," he said.

One aspect of the aftermath of the hurricanes was not so much a "lessons learned," as it was a "concept tested." That was the ability of state and county law enforcement units to coordinate and support other units from different state and county jurisdictions. Helton from Alabama noted that while New Orleans got most of the attention, "the Mississippi coast got hit harder than anybody." Katrina made landfall just east of the border with Louisiana, so that the strongest winds and sea surges struck Mississippi coastal areas.

"There were a lot of places that were inaccessible, with people still in their homes but with no power, no food, no water, and supplies that were rapidly running out," Helton said. "Mostly our guys were loading up those 58s with [U.S. Army Meals Ready to Eat] and water, and flying them to those families."

For the first 2-3 days after the storm, the Alabama Public Safety Dept.concentrated its efforts mainly in Alabama coast areas. "After that, we put 60 troopers on the ground in Mississippi," Helton said. "About two days after the storm, we sent two helicopters over there, flying every day for a couple of weeks, taking water and MREs and landing wherever they could find a space."

The Alabama state police also used its KingAir to fly water and equipment to Mississippi "for a lot of police agencies that didn't have anything. They had so many police officers there that did not even have any extra clothing," Helton said. "What they were wearing the night of the storm is what they had the next day. We flew several planeloads of that stuff into Jackson, dropping off a lot of equipment for some of the law enforcement agencies."

As for jurisdictional authority, a lot of airborne law enforcement troopers suddenly found themselves leading two lives.

"Within two days, we had Virginia state police down here, then two days later Kentucky came down. The next week the California Highway Patrol showed up," McCloud said. "As the other agencies started coming in, we were flying our legal people down (to New Orleans) and administering oaths to them, so they were sworn in as Louisiana state troopers. They had all the arrest powers that we had."

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