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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Police Trim Hours, Tap Grants to Fly

As state and local tax revenues plummeted in recent years, police departments have felt the pinch and flight units are taking hits. There are federal funds to tap, but the receipts may not cover the cost of a new helicopter.

By Charlotte Adams

 The size of the problem depends on who’s talking. Several agencies are struggling, said Martin Jackson, president of the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA). Some units are shutting down or cutting back drastically on flight operations. Others estimate as many as 40 shutdowns, with four to five in California, alone. Some departments flying older military helicopters are having trouble finding low-cost surplus parts, not to mention aircraft, with two war

Budget restrictions are helping police departments look at lighter helicopters like this R44 in a fresh light. Robinson
s on. ALEA has sent letters to the officials of struggling units, explaining the value of airborne law enforcement to the community and the officers on the ground, Jackson said.

Rotor & Wing contacted a number of flight units across the country. In a few cases helicopters have been mothballed. More often, flight hours have been cut, hiring frozen, and procurements or upgrades postponed. Units are also re-examining their missions and looking at alternative financing approaches such as grants and leases. In some cases they are downsizing to light turbines or from turbines to piston aircraft. Other units we talked to are, at least for now, weathering the storm.

One of the problems now is the operating cost of large helicopters that law enforcement units bought when times were good, according to Tracy Biegler, director of sales and marketing for Enstrom Helicopter Corp. While departments had the acquisition budgets to buy large helicopters, one wonders whether they always looked at the operational implications of these purchases, he said. Enstrom offers low-cost turbine and piston solutions and teams with Government Capital to offer municipalities tax-exempt leasing packages.

Feeling the Pain

Budget issues finally stopped the 1968-vintage OH-6 from serving Killeen, Hawker Heights, Temple and Bell County, Texas, said Lt. Erich Morsbach of the Killeen Police Department. Located near Fort Hood, Killeen has not been hit as hard as other towns, he said. Efforts were made to talk to Enstrom and other manufacturers, as well as to identify grants, but ultimately the operation was shut down. The last flight was about two years ago, he said. The unit was a part-time operation, so its members have retired, returned to prior duties or assumed new duties.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department stopped flying last July due to budget woes. The financial crisis of the state of California trickled down to the county, said Jeff Werblun, a former deputy and pilot with the department. The Sheriff’s Department laid off about 140 full-time deputies, 200 to 300 part-time deputies, and “eliminated virtually every specialty unit,” he said.

Since the air operations unit was pretty far down the cut list, flight personnel thought they would just downsize a little. When the rug was pulled out from underneath them, it was a big surprise, Werblun said. That’s how bad the cuts were.

Sacramento County had five helicopters—three Eurocopter EC120s and two UH-1 Hueys—plus four fixed-wing aircraft, one of which has been sold. There were five helicopter pilots and two fixed-wing pilots, most of whom were reassigned to the county jail, Werblun said. The helicopters are exercised maybe an hour a month to keep everything lubed, but they are not flying patrols. One pilot is flying a fixed-wing aircraft under a government grant. Sacramento County’s air operations group had been around since 1977 and was the largest air support unit north of Southern California, Werblun said. It covered an area of more than 1,000 square miles with a population of more than 1 million. The city of Sacramento still has helicopters, but they pretty much stay within the city limits, Werblun said, and only go to the county in response to calls like “officer down.” More routine reports of missing persons, sick persons, speeding vehicles, noise and requests for area or route checks probably aren’t getting air support at all, he said.

Werblun pointed out that helicopters can do things ground forces can’t do. Several years ago robbery suspects eluded patrol cars but were tracked, as they abandoned their vehicle and ran through a neighborhood on foot, and were located by an orbiting ship. More recently, robbery suspects abandoned their vehicle at night and ran across a field and a busy freeway, Werblun recalled. The helicopter was the only police unit able to stay with the fleeing suspects and was high enough to track them even after they split up, using the FLIR.

Lower operational costs such as those found on the Enstrom 480B are
appealing to police departments whose budgets are tight. Enstrom
Pickens County, S.C., is fighting a similar battle. Although the Sheriff’s Office has received $25,000 in grant money, the repair bill for the unit’s 1969 OH-58 comes to more than $100,000. The Sheriff’s Office is applying for new parts through a military-surplus program, which could offset $15,000 to $18,000 of the cost, said Tim Morgan, assistant sheriff. He plans to use forfeitures to make up the difference. The unit, which also has a Cessna 182, hopes to get the OH-58 airborne in the next 60 days.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) had to cut operating hours because of the crunch. DPS reduced flight hours at regional bases in Flagstaff, Tucson and Kingman, while the central unit in Phoenix remains on call on a 24-hour basis to cover night missions, said Richard Thatcher, commander of the Aviation Bureau. Helicopters in the outlying areas are now available 12 hours a day vs. 24 hours a day earlier. Criteria for air response have also been tightened, he said. Before aircraft are dispatched, a sheriff’s department, for example, needs to make sure they have already used their ground resources to address the problem. In the last 18 months flight hours have been reduced by 40 percent. The pilot staff is down about 15 percent simply through attrition, he said. But the unit still responds to all appropriate calls for service.

While there are no plans at present to sell any of the aircraft, Thatcher doesn’t expect smooth sailing for the foreseeable future. Despite an increase in the sales tax and many budget cuts, analysts project that revenues won’t return to pre-recession levels until 2015, he said. “Everything is on the table.” Even the nation’s capital was not immune. Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department air support unit, which operates two AS350B3s, had its flight hours cut by more than 50 percent over the past year, according to operations Sgt. Randy Shedd.

Like some other fortunate jurisdictions, DC was able to snag a federal grant a few years ago for a new AStar. In return for purchase money from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the police department agreed to buy airborne radiation detection equipment.

Washington’s big-city neighbor, Baltimore, recently dodged a bullet. Its aviation unit avoided a $4-million cut for FY11 that would have severely impacted flight operations after the police commissioner interceded with the mayor. As this article went to press, the funding appeared to have been restored, but the new fiscal year does not begin until July 1, 2010.

Success Stories

Despite California’s high-profile budget woes, the city of Pasadena has come out pretty well so far. The Pasadena Police Department recently acquired new MD500E and Enstrom 480B light turbine helicopters. Although the city paid for the MD chopper, the 480B was fully grant-funded, said Capt. Bob Mulhall of the city’s air operations section. The Enstrom helicopter supports a multi-jurisdictional effort known as L.A. IMPACT, for Los Angeles Interagency Metropolitan Police Apprehension Task Force. The operational cost of the 480B is covered by the task force and asset forfeiture.

“Our reason for success has always been that we’ve purchased the aircraft for the mission,” Mulhall said. If the mission is to fly patrol, “I don’t need a seven-passenger helicopter to do that.” Success also requires maintaining statistical information showing that the air unit reduces crime, he added.

Neighboring towns have been impressed enough with Pasadena PD’s capabilities to hire its aviation services. The air unit now supports 10 “contract cities,” through the Foothill Air Support Team (FAST), Mulhall said. They get the benefits of access without the burdens of maintenance.

Although the MD500 wasn’t free, its police gear was purchased through the State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP), which receives funds from DHS. The Pasadena unit used its FY08 grant of $650,000 to buy a FLIR, moving map system and search light for the MD500. It has applied for $500,000 in grant money for FY10 that would be used to upgrade the FLIR. Grants are an important source of funding, Mulhall said. Without them “we’d be flying FLIRs that are 20 years old.” The money is out there if you go seek it, he asserted.

The Baton Rouge, La., Police Department also purchased a new helicopter for its new air support unit with stimulus funds from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Baton Rouge PD bought its fully equipped Robinson R44 Raven II police interceptor with its half of a $1.9 million 2009 Recovery Act grant from DOJ. The R44 is fitted with a FLIR 8000, a moving map with IMU, a microwave image transmitter, a camera and a spotlight, according to Robinson Helicopter and press reports. The East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office, which received the other half of the grant money, purchased other police equipment.

The Alabama Department of Public Safety, meanwhile, was able to buy a new Bell 407 with DOJ grant money, according to a report on the American Association of State Troopers website. Although the force already has a large helicopter fleet, the new aircraft allowed the addition of various rescue and medevac missions. The Arkansas state police also acquired a new helicopter to replace its aging OH-58, using grants, according to local press reports.

Albuquerque, N.M., received a grant a few years ago, of which about $100,000 was allotted to replace expiring parts for the city’s 2001 EC120. (The city also has a Cessna 182.) The air support unit would like to add an AStar B3 because the EC120 can’t be flown all the time. There are some days when the density altitude is such that the EC120 won’t even lift off the ground, said Sgt. David Hanson, a fixed-wing pilot with the APD. The department has applied for a grant, part of which would go towards a new helicopter.

The city has considered Robinsons and Schweizers, but the requirement for a two-man crew and to take city officials aloft prevents downsizing. The unit keeps very good statistics and has been able to show it’s “put a lot of people in jail,” Hanson said. He said the city would like the unit to fly more, but it can’t because of insufficient personnel. The unit performs searches outside the city but doesn’t typically do rescues because of its mountainous environs. Nevertheless it was able to locate, rescue and fly a woman from the inhospitable Rio Puerco area to a waiting ambulance, he said. Because of the terrain, it would have taken too long for a ground rescue team to reach the woman, who was in the early stages of hypothermia.

The County of Merced, Calif., the city of Omaha, Neb., and Wayne County, Mich., also received DOJ funding to support their flight units, according to the agency. But grant funding of a helicopter purchase is highly unusual, advised Sarah Wilson, a program manager with policegrantshelp.com, a free online service for law enforcement. These assets are very expensive and officers have many other items that they need on a day-to-day basis. She mentioned personnel, training, protective vests and patrol cars as competing needs. Wilson also emphasized the importance for grant applicants to provide evidentiary support, point out a problem they’re trying to solve, describe the impact of the funding on the community and indicate how they plan to sustain the project after the grant.

Other departments told Rotor & Wing that they’re monitoring costs more closely. The Pennsylvania State Police, with its fleet of eight helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft, has some replacement plans but these are “obviously contingent on funds being available in what are challenging fiscal times,” said Maj. Wesley Waugh, director of the agency’s Bureau of Emergency and Special Operations. “You may end up keeping helicopters a little bit longer than you planned.”

The agency is also looking at the pros and cons of leasing rather than purchasing helicopters, he said. Because they’re so expensive “even in financially good times, there’s just never a good time to buy a helicopter,” Waugh said. The advantage of leasing is the flatter cost curve, but the downside is you pay a little more for the ship because profit has to be built in.

The Pennsylvania police are keeping a closer eye on operating costs. Sometimes they have to pick and choose where they buy fuel because of price, Waugh said. The force also monitors flight hours very closely and “tends to pick and choose missions fairly carefully,” with the exception of national missions, Waugh said.

The state police have cut back and are “monitoring a lot more closely,” but—bottom “line—they’re still fulfilling their law enforcement purpose,” he said. “Of the essential services we provide, I can’t point to any that we’re not providing.”

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