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Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Search for Pilots and Medics

By Ernie Stephens

Times are tough, ladies and gentlemen. With very few exceptions—none of which I can even think of at the moment—law enforcement agencies are having a hard time finding helicopter pilots and flight medics. Uh, let me rephrase that: Law enforcement agencies are having a hard time finding helicopter pilots and flight medics they want to hire.

Just about every state, county and local department with air assets that I’ve spoken to are having a hard time finding pilots. And for the law enforcement agencies that provide medevac services, I hear the same thing about paramedics.

On the surface, it seems strange that the police and sheriff community is having difficulty finding people, considering the current jobless rate in the U.S. But unfortunately, the pool that law enforcement entities look to for candidates isn’t as well-stocked as some of the others.

Commercial flight operations are looking for many of the same things we are. They want folks who have the appropriate licenses and certifications, can be proficient in air operations, and who can play well with others. And most of all, they want aviators who will get the job done without getting anyone killed, injured, or afraid to fly again.

If a police department’s policy is to hire from within its sworn ranks, the pickin’s are slim to begin with. There tend to be very few officers—if any—who have the money to get a pilot’s license at all, let alone have a commercial rating. In those cases, the best odds come from having a military reservist or National Guard member with wings who is already on board, and wants to come into the unit. (I’ll also count retired police pilots from other departments in this category.) For the medic side, good luck finding someone already on the department who is a trained, certified and current paramedic.

If the agency’s modus operandi is to train cops already in their ranks, that’s great. The only risk is having the potential pilot or medic wash out of training. After all, becoming a pilot or a paramedic is as hard as it is expensive. By the way, there was a time when the U.S. Park Police and the Metropolitan Police in Washington, D.C. (the latter having once been a quasi-federal agency), were allowed to send their officers through the Army’s basic helicopter flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala. There, they trained side-by-side with military pilots in military ships, except they were excused from activities and lectures that were specific to soldiering. (How cool was that for the average beat-cop-turned-pilot?!)

Anyway, the other method for finding pilots and medics is to actively go outside of the agency and look for them. When you find them, you can put them directly in the aviation unit as civilians, or swear them in and put them on the street for a little while before giving them their wings. But this whole recruiting business is where the wheels are falling off.

Police departments and sheriff offices are finding a bunch of candidates who look really, really good—right up until they plug them up to that electronic stool pigeon we call a polygraph. Question: “Are you concealing any information regarding illegal drug use?” BUZZ! Game over. As aviators and cops, we know we have to stay clean, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because we get tested for drug use. But unfortunately, civilian applicants seeking law enforcement careers frequently fail their drug test, either at the doctor’s office or in the polygraph room. In fact, I recall the day a young man who was applying for a civilian police job arrived for his interview with so much marijuana in his system, the polygraph equipment got a contact high! And then there is social media. Many applicants now crash and burn because a photo of some past indiscretion is still floating around out there, like the beer blast they hosted while still 17 years old.

Law enforcement agencies are notorious for paying civilian personnel significantly less than sworn people. The argument, which certainly does have some merit, is that officers have the dual function of being peacekeepers. And whether or not the civilian person buys that line, the disparity in pay has often been the driving force behind many non-sworn aviators walking away from the job shortly after being hired, if not canceling their application altogether.

When you’re lucky enough to find civilians with the appropriate amount of experience who can pass the background, and don’t mind the money, it’s the shift work that often disturbs them, and sends them looking for different job. And many times, this happens far too soon after the department has shelled out a lot of money to hire and train them.

Thank goodness police aviation still has its attractive aspects, like a certain amount of job security (for now), decent bennies, and missions that are more exciting than most places on the commercial side. But I would be remiss if I left out the one thing that still drives good people—sworn and civilian, pilot and paramedic—away: feeling unappreciated by their bosses. And that’s too bad, since treating people well can be so easy.

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