City and County Police Hope to Merge Helicopter Services

St. Louis police pilot William Kiphart (left) and St. Louis County police deputy chief pilot Derek Dunmire fly a county police MD 500E helicopter this month as the two departments discussed merging their helicopter operations.

Move could save money while increasing number of air patrols.
St. Louis police pilot William Kiphart (left) and St. Louis County police deputy chief pilot Derek Dunmire fly a county police MD 500E helicopter this month as the two departments discussed merging their helicopter operations.

Sometimes a police officer's closest backup is watching from 500 feet in the air. It's the same pair of eyes that finds lost hunters and monitors possible terrorist targets.

These cops in the sky are helicopter pilots. And authorities in the St. Louis area are working to get them airborne more often by combining the city and county helicopter units in the coming weeks.

"In these economic times, we have to find other ways to fund the helicopter program or risk losing it," said St. Louis County police Chief Ronald Battelle. "This may be a first in a line of efforts to combine resources."

The St. Louis city Police Board will discuss the alliance at its regular meeting today. The county Police Board reviewed the plan last week.

Although St. Louis city and St. Louis County officials could not provide exact numbers, they say they expect both police departments to save money. And they expect to provide more air patrols for the area.

"It's a tremendous asset to the region," Battelle said.

Police say they use helicopters in countless scenarios: patrolling neighborhoods, searching for missing people, photographing crime scenes, surveying criminal activity, following stolen cars.

If a suspect runs into a field, a helicopter crew can search the area in minutes. It would take dozens of officers to form a line and sweep the same area.

"We can eliminate everything but the buildings as a possible hiding place," said Lt. Kurt Frisz, commander of the St. Louis County police flight operations. "Then officers on the ground can concentrate their efforts. It saves an enormous amount of manpower."

But costs limit access to an aircraft for both police departments.

"A helicopter is an expensive piece of equipment to keep up in the air," said St. Louis police Maj. Paul Nocchiero. "It's a maintenance-intensive kind of operation." Today both departments can call on a helicopter during an emergency 24-hours a day. It takes from 30 minutes to an hour to get one in the air.

The helicopters now patrol the sky about 11 percent of the time in the city and 23 percent in the county.
By adjusting work schedules, officials expect the new combined unit with four flight crews can patrol the region 64 percent of the time.

The two departments will share their helicopters, pilots, and money to keep a unit airborne every day.
Busy hours, such as the evening commute and weekend nights, may be covered with two helicopters.

The St. Louis County helicopter program began in 1970. Its pilots and observers are members of the county police tactical team.

The county department has purchased two helicopters and received two others for free from the U.S. Department of Defense. It uses two of the helicopters for patrol, one for training and the other for parts.

City police have been flying since 1998. They got their helicopter, a Bell OH-58C (a Vietnam-era design called the Kiowa in military service), from the federal government as surplus.

If the plan is approved, the city will move its aircraft from the ARCH Air Medical Services hangar near downtown to Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, where the county police keep their four helicopters and airplane.

The departments will share the cost of a mechanic, saving money on outside contracting. Currently, the city spends about $50,000 a year on maintenance and the county spends $100,000.

Officials also expect to save money by purchasing fuel through more than one vendor and by retiring one of the helicopters in the future.

Each department will contribute four officers - both pilots and observers - to the unit.

The observers control a spotlight, called a NightSun, and the heat-sensing camera mounted under the aircraft. They also monitor radio traffic for calls that need air assistance.

The helicopter crews will respond to crimes in progress. They'll track suspects and provide light for officers on the ground. They also help find missing people such as young children or disoriented adults who wander from home.

Patrol officers can call on the helicopter to assist during pursuits.

"The helicopter can follow the stolen car, and police don't have to get involved in a high-speed chase," Nocchiero said.

Helicopter patrols will check for suspicious activity at potential terrorist targets such as bridges, railways and utility plants.

A crew can patrol the entire county and city in about two hours. In an emergency, they can fly from one end of the county to the other in seven minutes, Frisz said.

The new partnership would give city police access to a county helicopter rescue team called the Special Operations Aviation Rescue team. It includes firefighters, paramedics, police officers and helicopter pilots. The team can be called to save a person trapped on the roof of a burning building or struggling in swift water.

The new combined helicopter unit also will respond in emergencies to surrounding counties in Missouri and Illinois, Battelle said.

Reporter Heather Ratcliffe
Phone: 618-659-3637