Police get new crime-fighting, rescue tool

Capt. Kurt Frisz, left, Col. Tim Fitch, Sheriff Tom Neer and Col. Daniel Isom unveil their new crime-fighting and rescue tool.

The St. Louis Metro Air Support Unit has another tool in its crime fighting quiver that also doubles as a search and rescue tool.

The unit bought a 2009 MD500E, made by MD Helicopters Inc., for $1.5 million in grant money through an Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) Homeland Security grant, along with the St. Louis Area Regional Response System (STARRS).

St. Louis County Police Chief Col. Tim Fitch said the addition to the air fleet will enhance the unit's ability to perform search and rescue missions, increase patrols to the region's critical infrastructure such as waterways, energy plants, bridges and large industrial complexes, and also provide support to first responders and aid in swift water rescues.

A consolidated flight unit started in 2004; the Metro Air Support Unit is made up of police officers and pilots from the St. Louis County Police Department, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department (SLMPD) and the St. Charles County Sheriff’s office.

The unit was started when the three regional law enforcement agencies found it too expensive to carry on flight operations on their own.

St. Louis County Police Capt. Kurt Frisz, commander of the unit, was ecstatic over the new addition to the air fleet, which includes five other helicopters, some almost 30 years old.

The new MD 500E has a stronger engine, which allows for better lift for rescues, Frisz said, in addition to the newest GIS and cockpit technology.

“It’s going to be a great addition to the fleet because it spreads the wealth among the other aircraft here today,” Frisz said. “It helps to lift the load from the other helicopters.”

The unit operates six helicopters, three for daylight patrol and three for night patrols. The three night patrol helicopters are outfitted with forward looking infrared cameras to better see in the dark.

And like a proud papa, Frisz grinned a mile wide when asked if he’s taken the MD 500E for a spin.

“Oh yeah,” he smiled. “It’s good. It’s got a lot of power and it’s a gutsy helicopter.”

At an introduction Tuesday at the unit’s headquarters at Spirit of St. Louis Airport to all involved in acquiring the MD 500E, which included Fitch, STLMPD Chief Daniel Isom, St. Charles County Sheriff Tom Neer, members of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners and other law enforcement officials, STARRS Executive Director Dominic “Nick” Gregani, a former St. Louis County Police officer, said it all started years ago with a chance meeting while buying a television.

“This really started when I was buying a television at a store in South County,” he said. “I was walking through looking at TVs when a former (Metro Air Support) pilot came up to me and asked “hey, do you think we can get some Homeland Security money to purchase another helicopter?’ That was five years ago, so that shows how long it takes. We’re grateful to be able to be here today and say, here it is.”

Fitch said he was confident the new helicopter will be a regional asset to all the departments.

One of the most significant features of the new MD 500E is its tail number, Frisz said. All Metro Air Support unit helicopters have tail numbers the 911 series, but the newest addition includes the letters NY at the end -- 911NY.

“We think that (number) belongs in first-response and law enforcement, so we reserved the number,” Frisz said. “We offered it to the City of New York on two occasions, but they use a different numbering system and declined. Since this was funded through Homeland Security money, which was spawned out of 9/11, what a more appropriate number to fly in honor of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.”

Capt. Kurt Frisz, left, Col. Tim Fitch, Sheriff Tom Neer and Col. Daniel Isom unveil their new crime-fighting and rescue tool.

Photos and Story By Steve Birmingham

Tuesday, January 26, 2010