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Friday, July 1, 2011

Delaware State Police  

Multi-role DSP Aviation Section conducts law enforcement and medical transport for state’s 890,000 residents.

By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large

DSP’s Aviation Section is a 24/7 operation that serves the state’s 890,000 citizens, and supports the agency’s 620 troopers. N75SP, shown here, is its latest Bell 407, which is outfitted for both police and emergency medical transport missions. Photo by John Randolph

Too often, we inadvertently make assumptions about the quality of something based upon its size. As children, we figured the smallest box had the worst gift. And given a choice of accommodations, we assume the little hotel isn’t as luxurious as the larger one. Well, don’t let the size of Delaware fool you into assuming it’s short on anything. It may be the second smallest state in the union, but it offers big-state services. And there’s no better place to see that than with the Delaware State Police Aviation Section (DSPAS), which in 2010 celebrated its 40th year in operation.

I met Capt. Ronald Hagan, the commander of the DSPAS, at a gala hosted by the Univ. of Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Why there of all places? It’s because DSPAS is not just an airborne law enforcement operation. One of its primary roles is that of an emergency air medical transport service for its population of 890,000 residents. As Maryland’s tall, slender neighbor to the east, Delaware has a few locations that are closer to the University of Maryland’s trauma center in Baltimore than they are to Delaware hospitals.

Somewhere between the Caesar salad and the filet mignon, Hagan invited me to visit one of his command’s two bases: Summit Airport (EVY) in northern Delaware, or Sussex County Airport (GED) in the southern half of the state. I chose the latter, since that’s where Hagan is billeted.

Delaware State Police operates a fleet of three Bell 407s and this Bell 412 in both police and medical transport roles. Here, troopers prepare to deploy from the aircraft during a tactical training exercise. Photo by John Randolph

DSPAS’s southern hangar looks pretty pedestrian from the outside. But inside, it’s like the Taj Mahal, compared to many of the other police hangars I have been to. The personnel wing was built specifically to suit the agency’s 24/7 flight operation, which consists of one pilot and one paramedic working a 24-hour shift, followed by three days off.

Each crewmember “checks in,” for lack of a better description, to one of the dormitory-style rooms that comes outfitted with a small bed, desk, chair and lamp. Across the hall is a day room, flight planning area, full kitchen, small locker room and a shower. Down the hall is Hagan’s huge, executive-style office. Adjacent to the living and office quarters is the hangar, which can easily accommodate the two duty aircraft when they are not parked at the ready on the unit’s private apron. A small exercise room, which was once an office, is there as well.

The heart of the DSPAS is, of course, its fleet of aircraft. Currently, it flies three Bell 407s (it was the launch customer for the police version), and its biggest ship-of-the-line, a Bell 412. All helicopters have a full medical suite in the aft cabin capable of carrying the medic, one patient on a litter, and a third rider in a regular seat.

The agency also operates a Cessna 182Q, single-engine airplane for drug interdiction missions and other assignments, where loitering at higher altitudes and cruising at greater speeds comes in handy.

On the day of my visit, the southern base was being served by two Bell 407s. The other 407, the 412 and the Cessna were on duty at the Summit Airport hangar 52 nm to the north.

DSPAS’s Bell 407s were purchased new in 2000 (N97SP), 2001 (N165SP) and 2004 (N75SP). The 412 (N2SP) was delivered new in 2006. Consequently, the mix of avionics and mission equipment aboard each aircraft can differ in brand, based upon what was new, wonderful and affordable at the time they were ordered.

But generally speaking, each aircraft has a forward-looking infrared/color video system, for use in searches; a digital video downlink system, to transmit FLIR/video images to ground personnel; a searchlight for illuminating scenes and landing zones; a FLIR-searchlight slave unit, which allows one system to follow the aim-point of the other; helmet-mounted night vision goggles, for enhanced night vision acuity; and an FM radio suite that provides two-way communications with every local, state and federal law enforcement, emergency response and medical organization in or near the state. Unlike the other aircraft, the Bell 412 is also equipped with a rescue hoist and emergency floats.

The DSPAS aircraft are equipped with the latest in police mission equipment, such as a moving map system, multi-band FM radio suite, NVGs, and thermal imaging gear. But while all four aircraft have the same general capabilities, individual equipment manufacturers sometimes vary from ship to ship.  Photo by Ernie Stephens

When asked which piece of non-medical equipment was the most valuable, Captain Hagan thought for a moment. “Everyone has their own favorite, but I would have to say our moving map systems are the most valuable to our mission.”

DSPAS uses moving map systems from Avalex Technologies of Pensacola, Fla., and Aerocomputers of Oxnard, Calif. Both brands plot the aircraft’s position with pinpoint accuracy, and depicts it as an icon on a small, panel-mounted, color monitor in map form that moves in unison with the ship. Its most useful function is finding exact addresses. (Think of a GPS that displays ground features, and gives direction to specific addresses, rather than air navigation points.) The computer draws a direct line from the location of the aircraft to the street address entered by the operator, and also shows distance, and time en route to the destination.

Summit Aviation provides maintenance for the aircraft. The company is based at Summit Airport, the same airport where DSPAS’s northern unit is located. Fuel comes from a military program, as well as direct purchases from the FBOs at the two bases.

If the aircraft are the heart of the DSPAS, its staff of 24 aviators, two non-commissioned officers, and commander, is its soul. Its pilots and paramedics—all of whom are selected from the ranks of the department’s 620 troopers—fly medical missions approximately 65 percent of the time, law enforcement assignments 30 percent of the time, and other operations (SAR, VIP transport, etc.) the remaining time.

In order to qualify for acceptance into the DSPAS as a pilot, troopers must already possess at least a private pilot license with 100 hours (total time) in either fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters, and three years of service with the state police; the latter of which can be waived if the applicant has experience as a state police officer from another jurisdiction. Once in the unit, they receive additional training from a contract CFI, who helps them earn their commercial and instrument tickets. Pilots will round off their training by flying actual missions with experienced DSPAS line pilots.

“We like to see our pilots advance, and encourage them to do so,” said Hagan. “So, we help them become dual rated to fly the Cessna, earn a higher class license, and anything else that will develop their skills.”

Potential medics also need to have three years of trooper experience, but prior training or certification as an emergency medical provider is not a prerequisite. Those selected to be flight paramedics are excused from regular law enforcement duties to be fulltime students at Delaware Technical and Community College, where they train to become certified paramedics. They then do additional in-house training before being allowed to function independently. Medics also receive some aviation training, so they may assist the pilot when there isn’t a patient onboard.

Hagan adds that he is looking into sending potential pilots to a Part 141 flight school for all of their training, the same way paramedics are sent to school to acquire their education.

For a small state, Delaware has many things to be proud of. It has ocean resorts; a major military base (Dover, AFB); and its largest city, Wilmington, is considered the banking capital of the U.S. With its robust flight department and the service it provides to its citizens, the DSPAS is just one other thing the state can be very, very proud of.

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