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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Cop school: the Helicopter Division

You might have heard a big commotion in Lincolnia about a week ago. A drunk driver crashed an SUV into the gas pumps at the Sunoco station on Little River Turnpike and Beauregard Street and fled the scene. She was eventually located and arrested for hit-and-run among other charges.

“Fairfax 1,” the Fairfax County Police Department’s helicopter, played a big role in apprehending the driver. Next time, you notice a police chopper in the sky, chances are it’s chasing a robbery suspect, investigating a suspicious noise, searching for a missing child, or carrying out some other crime-related mission.

A manikin in the helicopter is used for training.
About 80 percent of the 3,000 missions undertaken by the helicopters are police work, Master Police Officer Paul DeHaven, a senior flight officer and tactical paramedic, told participants in the Fairfax County Citizens Police Academy at our April 26 session. We visited the heliport, on West Ox Road in Fairfax, and had a look inside the chopper, but unfortunately, we didn’t get a ride.

Ten percent of the helicopter missions are medevac flights, and 10 percent are various other assignments, such as taking part in a deer census or searching for ostriches that escaped from a farm.

The police department has two Bell 429s, one of which has just been purchased and will be delivered in May. They can go faster—over 180 mph—and are roomier than the Bell Rangers the police previously used. They have an open cabin configuration with room for two stretchers.

Using a helicopter is much more efficient for certain types of police work. “With a helicopter, we can clear five acres of woods in a few minutes,” DeHaven says, while it would take patrol officers hours on foot.

MPO Paul DeHaven
In one incident, police in a helicopter discovered a gang rape in progress in a park, he recalls. In another mission, the helicopter was used to confirm that marijuana was growing on a property. The police had suspected it was there, but a fence blocked the view from the ground. By detecting the plants from the air, the police were able to show probable cause, which they needed for a search warrant.

Marijuana growers might think they are safe from the police when they cultivate it indoors, but a thermal imaging camera in the helicopter can detect their high-powered grow lights. The helicopters also use infrared technology, rather than a bright spotlight, to detect a body or a suspect hiding in the woods.

The helicopters support SWAT teams during hostage and barricade situations, support the dive team in body recovery operations, and provide medical support to the civil disturbance unit. In 2002, when the region was terrorized by the snipers, two full-time SWAT officers were assigned to the helicopter division for tactical response missions.

There are fewer medevac missions than there used to be, DeHaven says, because cars are safer, which means there are fewer collisions, and because there is less building going on, so there are fewer construction-related accidents.

Still, the police serve as the primary medevac provider in Fairfax County, DeHaven says. If you’re “lucky” enough to be rescued by the police helicopter, there is no charge, while the INOVA hospital system  charges $12,000 for a helicopter ride. That’s because “a lot of people we pick up are indigents, like a homeless person who walks out into traffic,” he says, and it’s not cost-effective for the police to go through the paperwork to get reimbursed.

The goal for medevac missions is to land, carry out critical interventions, and take off in less than 10 minutes, DeHaven said. EMTs can use a cinch collar to haul people up during a water rescue or a basket to scoop up people who are incapacitated.

The helicopter division includes 11 flight officers who are sworn police officers trained as EMTs, six pilots, one commander, and two full-time mechanics. They also work closely with three medical directors, including an anesthesiologist.

To be a flight officer, you need to have completed two years of service in the Fairfax County Police Department; you must be nationally and state-certified as a paramedic and in basic life trauma support, advanced cardiac life support, and pediatric advanced life support; have a commercial license to pilot a helicopter; 1,000 hours of flight time; and a class II or higher medical certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

If that’s the career path you want, you have to be really motivated: Each hour of flight time costs a couple of hundred dollars and takes three or four hours, including preparation and post-flight paperwork.

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