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Friday, July 1, 2011

Show the Colors (Before You Lose Them)

By Ernie Stephens

Back when my unit first began, there were three unwritten policies that we were awfully good about following. First, if you leave with a helicopter, bring a helicopter back. The second was that if we had good weather, a reliable aircraft and a flight-worthy crew, we would not refuse any calls for service, even 30-minute-old robberies where the only lookout was for that pesky “dark, unknown-make vehicle last seen headed towards the interstate.” The third was that we would accept all reasonable invitations to bring the helicopter out for a show-and-tell, provided we had a safe LZ. And, of course, we tried to fly two 2-hour patrols each 10-hour shift.

As simple as that sounds, it’s no longer the case there, or at many of the other police and sheriff hangars I’ve visited or contacted recently. These days, LE helicopter units are run like fire departments: The staff waits for a call, goes straight to it, deals with the incident, and comes straight back.

Yeah, I know it’s about the thin budgets agencies are saddled with, now. The more time the Hobbs meter racks up, the more fuel the aircraft drinks, and the sooner stuff needs to be replaced. But the effects of the economy on a police operation are more far-reaching.

Let me start off by saying that tough financial times call for tough financial measures. And when it’s time to cut budgets, ditching patrol flights is a big pill for an aviation division to swallow. A helicopter on patrol stands a far greater chance of coming upon a roof job, a recently dumped stolen auto, or a remote fire. And there’s always the sound argument that responding to a call while airborne is faster than launching cold. But the lesser of two evils is probably to suspend proactive patrols, rather than go out trolling for trouble when the department’s checkbook can’t reasonably fund both.

This is the part that’s going to sound screwy, so please bear with me: Even though a calls-only approach to saving money in an aviation unit is reasonable to me, I don’t think it should automatically include a prohibition on taking the helicopter out to local static displays, such as career days at schools, civic gatherings and similar community events. In fact, I think these hard economic seasons are the main time we need to “show the colors,” as I like to call it.

My argument goes to the basic public relations mission of meeting with citizens in a non-confrontational situation, then using that opportunity to tell them how much a helicopter can do. Point out the spotlight, explain how video and thermal imaging equipment works, show them the moving map system, and anything else you have aboard your ship. People “ooh” and “ah” over those things, and rightly so. It’s great technology. But this isn’t where it ends.

When citizens go to town hall meetings, call their council representatives, or corner the head of an LE agency to complain about a lack of service, they aren’t pounding their fists on the table because helicopters are being kept in the hangar. They’re complaining about waiting 30 minutes for a patrol car to respond to a burglary in progress. They want to know why more officers weren’t out looking for the senior citizen who wandered away from their home the night before. And all the while, these concerned citizens are unaware that a helicopter could have made a positive impact in all of those incidents. Why? It’s because nobody ever told them.

When the police helicopter is kept in the hangar, citizens don’t know how helpful it can be. Visibility is what “markets” a public safety aviation operation. It’s seeing it sitting at the county fair, or participating in one of the National Night Out events. Many EMS units stay fairly well-funded because taxpayers routinely see them landing at the local hospital, or loading up on the scene of serious accident. But how often are they reminded of the value of a police helicopter on patrol?

If that helicopter can get out where the public is, citizens and community leaders can hear the crew tell of finding lost children and missing Alzheimer patients within minutes, or tracking a robber as he tries to elude ground units. And if a taxpayer wants to know what the operating costs are, the force multiplier effect can be explained in the same breath. Later, when budget axe is aimed at the hangar, those newly educated citizens may very well fight the battle with you, if not for you.

The public support that can be gained from a simple appearance far outweighs the 10-minute flight to the event and back. Besides, the unit isn’t out anything if it has to respond to a call from the state fair. Heck, people like seeing us launch, anyway.

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