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Tuesday, August 1, 2006

Law Enforcement: They're Just "Uneducated"

Sgt. Ernie Stephens


Floating around this year's Airborne Law Enforcement Assn.'s Northeast Regional Safety Conference (and every ALEA conference, for that matter) were tales of aviation unit commanders and administrators who are, well, less than effective. Most of my fellow flyers say that their upper management consists of very nice people, but that they don't know anything about aviation management.

Based on what I have gathered from my comrades around the country (and some of my own hair-pulling experiences), the most common complaints about air unit managers and administrators all boil down to one problem: They're just ignorant.

Now hang on! Don't start shaking your fists in the air and yelling, "You've got that right!" Just hear me out: I'm not calling those people morons. What I am calling them is "ignorant," which my dictionary defines as "without education." After all, pilots got their jobs and titles because the FAA considers them educated aviation experts. (Non-flying crewmembers, while not ordained by the government, are often well trained and just as expert at what they do.) Many managers and administrators, however, inherit their aviation jobs because... well... they were sent there. They didn't have to produce a license, and there was no test to pass. They're probably nice people, but aviation-wise, they're as lost as a 20-hr. pilot in zero-zero conditions.

I was at a helicopter convention once and spoke to the deputy chief of a major public-service aviation department. At his agency, deputy chiefs are shuffled from assignment to assignment every couple of years, with little regard for their skills. It's like a game of musical chairs, and when the music stopped, he found himself in front of the chair marked "Air Support."

"I thought it was going to be just another division," he told me. "I was VERY wrong!"

That high-ranking official was a seasoned administrator, but soon discovered that he was in over his head. Nowhere else in a police or sheriff organization does a person have to handle the run-of-the-mill people issues, plus manage the single most expensive pieces of equipment their agency owns. Add a set of regulations that read like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and it's no wonder that chief's parting observation was, "It took me two years just to start getting the hang of this aviation stuff, and now I have to leave."

Let's face it: The folks managing that big Part 135 operation on the other side of the airport are all aviation experts by trade. They don't blink when a $150,000 invoice for an engine overhaul floats across their desk. Heck, it's just another day at the office for those guys. But over at the police hangar, that same bill would have had the unit's new captain sucking on a paramedic's oxygen bottle. (After all, he thought the entire aircraft was only worth $100,000 with everything in it!)

So it's safe to say that most incoming managers and administrators of police air units are ignorant of the ways of aviation. What's the best cure for ignorance? Education? (Brace yourself, because here comes the "you can lead a horse to water" part.)

Some administrators hit each and every new duty station with the idea that they need to learn what's going on. They identify their sharpest people, tag along behind them, and begin each question with, "This may sound stupid, but..."

Consider the new lieutenant of an aviation unit who was at my hangar yesterday. His people had brought him along to experience his first helicopter flyby to honor fallen law enforcement officers. He poked his head in every participating aircraft and asked a ton of questions. He accepted that he was new to the duty, and had already learned not to assume that running an aviation unit would be routine. Best of all, he knew that being ignorant was nothing to be ashamed of, under the circumstances, because he was in the learning stage.

On the other hand, several years ago I met a commander who ended up in charge of an aviation unit and brought a "What's the big deal about aviation?" attitude with him. In his mind, the aircrew members were nothing more than cops in navy blue, one-piece pajamas, and the helicopter was a noisy novelty item. All attempts to explain the nuances of operating an air unit were dismissed as self-aggrandizing hype and chest beating. Years later, he's still there and he still doesn't know the basics, but sometimes he seems open to formal training. Aviation management training, however, costs money... or does it?

The ALEA recently announced a plan to help the managers and administrators of aviation operations. This year, novice air unit leaders were able to attend aviation management seminars, tuition-free, at ALEA's annual conference in New Orleans. It's up-to-date training taught by the masters in the field, and could jump-start a commander's indoctrination into this complicated field.

Whether you have an administrator who is hungry for knowledge, or a misguided one who doesn't know how much he doesn't know, lead them to the water anyway you can. If you think ALEA can help, checkout their web site at www.alea.org and click on "ALEA Training."

Ernie Stephens holds a master's degree in aeronautical science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He is chief pilot for a major U.S. county police department. He can be reached at rotorandwing@accessintel.com.

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