It s a night like any other night on patrol in Anywhere, USA. Like clockwork, dispatch sends you to the inevitable domestic disturbance at an apartment complex you know far too well. As you pull into the parking lot, you see a man run from the far building, barely visible under the one functioning street light. Behind him, a woman, bloodied and screaming, comes out calling for help. You run around the corner while calling for more units, but the man is nowhere in sight. Above the commotion you hear a helicopter approaching, and your radio crackles: Air 1, can we be of assistance?
Scenarios such as this are becoming more and more common. Not only is the law enforcement air fleet growing, but the equipment and training put to use from the air has improved exponentially. Gone are the days when you threw a patrol officer in with a pilot, showed em where the radio transmit button was and stormed off into the sky to fight crime. Today s tactical flight officers (TFOs) are full-time specialists who require 40 80 hours of intensive training on top of years of patrol work before they are allowed to even try answering a call unsupervised during the daytime. Nighttime operations take even more training. A new TFO can take up to a year before they really start to master the job.
The better the TFO and equipment, the better the service provided by the air unit. Even if you have the best pilot who ever graced the skies flying overhead in the finest flying machine ever made, without a competent TFO and suitable equipment, the air unit will not be of any use to you.
Let s take it one step further: Assume you have the greatest TFO ever known working in the mighty ghetto bird. If communication between the TFO and the ground units remains poor, the air unit will provide minimal assistance despite effort, skill or luck.
A few simple tips will help any officer working with aviation assets get the full benefit of this significant support tool.
Making the Call
The number and variety of calls air support can assist go way beyond pursuits and missing-person searches. Covering that topic would take up an entire article, so let s just assume the decision has been made to ask for the air unit.
The next step: Communicating the need for air services. This critical step may seem simple but is often overlooked. It may be as easy as hitting the PTT button on your radio and asking. However, it could require an officer to ask dispatch to pass along the message because the air unit may not be on your frequency, need to be called out or called in from another jurisdiction.
Know your department s policy for requesting air support (many want the approval of a supervisor). But whatever the process is, call as soon as possible. The longer you delay, the lower the possibility of a successful mission. Treating the air unit as a last resort sets an agency up for very ineffective air support.
If you know beforehand that something is going to happen, such as a buy/bust, warrant sweep, etc., inform the aircrew and have them stand by somewhere in the air out of earshot. This will improve the response time because they are already airborne and monitoring the call.
Where Are You?
So, now that the air unit is en route to you, you must make sure they get to you whether you re on some undistinguishable corner of the concrete jungle or in the middle of the woods, far from any road. Many aviation units use moving-map systems that show the helicopter s position on a map with street names and addresses. However, this new technology has not made it onto many fleets due to budgetary restraints. Aircrews without a moving map rely on paper maps, the TFO s knowledge of the area and information from the ground units.
Crews cannot see building numbers, so addresses are of limited use. Instead of telling them something like, 122 North Main St., say, The third building north of Main St. and University Ave.; a white, single story house on the east side of the street. This may seem like a mouthful, but it will get your air unit to you quickly and without question.
Well-known businesses and landmarks are useful points to direct the helicopter in from. To navigate, many aircrews use objects that are elevated higher than their surroundings, such as cell towers, tall buildings, water towers, etc. If you can add something like that to your call location e.g., south of the water tower on 5th Ave., or two blocks east from the stadium it will further shorten response time.
At night, keep your overhead lights on if possible, or at minimum your parking lights. Flight crews regularly look for flashing lights as they respond to a call. Those equipped with night-vision goggles (NVG) can see emergency lights from miles away depending on lighting conditions.
What s Going On?
Once you get the air unit overhead, if you re the lead officer on the call, let them know exactly where you are and what you need. Remember, the crew may have been working on another channel, called out or responding from another jurisdiction all together, and were just told a location to respond to. Your flashlight works great for letting the TFO know where you are at night. If your air unit has NVGs, the flashlight looks like a long, narrow beam of light, so you can use it to point at things or indicate directions, such as where the subject was last seen running, which building you re looking at, etc. The TFO can use the same technique when they find something for you to check out. Point your flashlight directly in front of you and start pivoting until the TFO tells you your flashlight is pointing in the direction you need to walk.
OK, the aircraft is buzzing overhead, you ve confirmed with the TFO that they know the location and nature of the call and where you are it s time to get to work. Let s return to filling the TFO in on the call information. During the day, subject and vehicle descriptions are the same as for any other responding unit. The TFO usually can make out colors, vehicle types, clothing type, gender, etc. However, at night an air unit s thermal-imaging display (e.g., FLIR) is in black and white, and an NVG image is in shades of green. So, unless the subject is in a well-lit area, color descriptions will not prove useful. Understand that a TFO may send you to check a silver vehicle when you are looking for a white one at night due to this kind of limitation.
Direction of travel is extremely important to TFOs. One of the great advantages of air support is they can cover a lot of ground quickly. Your TFO is usually an experienced patrol officer and will be in the if I were a bad guy, where would I go? mode. Direction of travel information will focus their efforts more efficiently. Get this information to responding aircrews quickly so they can start looking while on their way to you. Aircrews have arrived on scene many times only to be told to look for a vehicle they saw on the way in but didn t know anyone was looking for. With missing persons, let the TFO know if the subject has any history of becoming lost, warrants or mental conditions such as Alzheimer s this information will change the tactics used by the crew.
Remember: The more information the flight crew has, the better they will be able to tailor their services to you. If you re not sure if they need a piece of information, tell them anyway. The TFO obviously can t receive information face-to-face, or via cell phone. Most do not have a computer with the call information in front of them or instant messages coming in with more info. And although the TFO is experienced, they usually have not been working in your area and do not know T-Bone is the local illegal pharmaceutical salesman and usually runs to his mom s house two streets south. Don t forget to keep the TFO updated throughout the call, not just when they initially show up. If they don t hear from you, they will expect nothing has changed.
Do you need them to look for something, provide light, transmit an image of a scene or get an unruly crowd s attention while keeping an eye on them? Do you want them to look at the traffic situation or for ejected passengers? They are there to support you, so let them know what you need the same as you would any other responding officer. If they are making too much noise, ask them to fly higher or clear the area for a few minutes.
Calling out locations and directions to aircrews presents some unique challenges. Keep track of cardinal directions. Directions such as, I m on the right side of the building or we re turning left are more unclear to an orbiting flight crew than, We re on the north side of the field, etc. It s understandable that during some of the most common calls air support responds to, such as foot pursuits, your sense of direction can get muddy. Remember, position calls to the aircrew such as, We re right under you, We re at your two o clock or Behind you are rarely accurate and encompass a large area to look at from the air. Using the color and shape of buildings or objects as you pass them will lead to quicker acquisition from the crew. We re passing the green house on the north side of the street or North behind the gray house with the oval pool will give a TFO something they can find quickly from the air. And once they have you, they can call out your position to responding units and set up a perimeter so you can concentrate on running down your bad guy.
What Can They Do For You?
So far you ve given the air unit quite a bit of information, and you expect some information in return. Rightfully so. What you get back from the air unit will vary by time of day and type of equipment. If you send your TFO out to look for something or someone, they should keep you updated as they clear each search area. If not, ask for an update.
The subjects and objects they send you to check out will usually be possible matches. The price we pay for being able to cover a large area and see in the dark is the lack of visual acuity necessary to make a positive identification. This is especially true at night. To a TFO, people and vehicles are white or green outlines. It s up to the TFO to use their experience to match a subject with suspicious behavior and/or location and decide to send a unit. On a FLIR, a suspect balled-up under some bushes may look the same as a hot rock. Always treat anything the TFO sends you to seriously it may be who you are looking for, or you may be waking up a rather unfriendly dog. If it s not what you are looking for, let the TFO know what you did find so they can adjust their search.
The FLIR is a very complex piece of equipment to operate and decipher. In addition to finding people or following vehicles in the dark, the TFO can tell you if one vehicle in a parking lot is hotter than the others, indicating it was recently driven. Or, that there is heat on the ground from a vehicle that was recently parked there. However, the FLIR can t see through walls, or water or glass. It s not very effective searching bodies of water, and it loses effectiveness the higher the outside temperature is, such as during the day.
It s Another Tool
Anyone who stays in law enforcement will eventually work with an air unit. Air support is a complex and often misunderstood section of law enforcement thanks to Hollywood and the remoteness of most air-unit offices, which are typically tucked away in the dark corners of airports. With the growing complexity and availability of aviation support, however, all involved must learn how to employ this service with maximum efficiency.
Communication is the first step. Talk to the aviation unit; let them know what you need, and find out what they need from you to get that done.
Learn to treat air support as just another tool on your belt. You serve the community, and the air unit is there to serve you in that effort.
Tips for Trainers
Visit the air unit. Find out what equipment they have. Ask to take a ride during the day and at night—air operations are completely different in the dark.
Practice using scenarios. Set up a simple foot pursuit or alarm call, and ask the air unit to help. This will increase effectiveness on actual calls, and you can usually do it with just a couple officers and the helicopter. Involve as many officers in this as your department will support.
Do a briefing with aircrews after calls. Find out what went right and what needs improvement on both sides of the operation. Share this information with your officers.
Make sure officers know when the aircrews are working, how to call for them when they are not or how to request a helicopter if your agency doesn’t have one. Aircrews can’t help if they don’t know assistance is needed.
Officer Bryan G. Smith is a pilot, safety officer and unit instructor with the Gainesville (Fla.) Police Department. He s been a police officer for five years, and a pilot for 15. Contact him at [email protected] .