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Satisfying a Curious Public

By By Ernie Stephens | January 1, 2015
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Back when I was a patrol sergeant, we got a Sunday morning call for the sound of automatic gunfire in a wooded area not too far from the station. Even though I had only been transferred to that district a few days before, I was familiar with the spot because our pistol range used to be there.

Not wanting to send my guys in without a little support, and because my county department didn’t have an aviation unit yet, I asked the state police to send a helicopter to locate the shooters and maybe even herd them out to us.

The state helicopter arrived about 20 minutes later, shooed the guys out of the woods to us, and returned to their hanger. Total time on station: 10 minutes, tops.

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Sure enough, it was some otherwise law-abiding shooters who were unaware that they were a bit too close to some new houses. After checking them out, we sent them happily on their way, and I turned my attention to the next priority: finding breakfast. Just as my omelet hit the table, the dispatcher told me to return to the station, then phone my lieutenant at home. I wolfed down my meal and did what we all do when the boss wants us: I went over everything I had done since the beginning of time. Seeing nothing to be worried about, I did as I was told.

“Ernie,” he said. “What was the state police helicopter doing in your sector an hour ago?” I told him, then asked him why he wanted to know.

“I got a call from the captain,” he explained. “And he got a call from the major, who got a call from the colonel, who got a call from the chief, who got a call from Mayor X, who wanted to know why the helicopter was near his town without him being informed.”

After determining that he wasn’t kidding, I had two questions. First, why did the presence of the helicopter cause so much angst with the mayor of a small town that was a good two miles away? And second, why would I notify that mayor of an innocuous incident that neither involved his town, nor registered on the who-cares meter?

Understanding that I was new to the sector, Grady explained that any time citizens in that town see a police helicopter, they start ringing the mayor’s phone wanting to know what’s up, and he’ll call the chief if he doesn’t know. So, the policy at that particular station was to fax an incident report to that town’s mayor any time we did anything in, near, or related to that town. Personally, I thought it was a ridiculous rule in this particular instance, but I went ahead and did as I was told.

As the shift wore on, I gave more thought to the idea that seeing a police helicopter orbiting overhead generates a lot of interest. After all, there had been a few times when I would see a helicopter circling near my house and call Communications to see what was going on. Why would anyone else be any less curious?

Well, the Fairfax County (Va.) Police Department (FCPD) outside of Washington, DC, appreciates the fact that as soon as a police helicopter breaks into an orbit, citizens want to know what’s going on. Is there a bad guy on the run? Is there a missing child out in the cold? Are they waiting to land for a medevac? So, the department created a web site where citizens can see what “Fairfax-One” is doing. I took a look at it at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/police/helicopter/.

On the opening page, you’ll find a quick mission statement for FCPD, a picture of its unit emblem, and when I looked, a video of a very nice FLIR find complete with air-to-ground and intercom chatter. There’s a list of missions flown - although it wasn’t quite up to date - and a listing of upcoming events where one of its Bell 429 helicopters will be on static display for the public to see. Visitors to the site may also find some excellent photographs and links to the unit’s proud history, the Fly Neighborly Program, and FAQ pages.

What I like most about FCPD’s web site is that it’s a great PR vehicle, because the taxpayers can see where their money is going, and gain an appreciation for the excellent services the crews provide. And make no mistake about it, we want the taxpayers on our side when the budget ax starts waving around looking for its next victim.

Nice job, Fairfax-One, and to the other agencies who are doing the same thing!

 

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