In a world where delivering value for money in tax payer-funded public services is constantly under scrutiny, aviation divisions of federal and national police forces in Germany, South Africa, the UK and the USA explain how they manage multi-mission needs.
Multi-role or single-mission
In a perfect world, the blended concept of a police unit’s aircraft also handling helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS), search and rescue (SAR), and surveillance options could be a winning combination for a number of reasons, but as Captain Chris Chambers, an EC135 pilot with the UK National Police Air Service (NPAS), commented: “Police, HEMS and SAR are three distinct roles with respective organizational structures and aircraft equipped accordingly.”
He added that in police air support, in addition to the equipment used for their primary role, NPAS helicopters are also equipped with a first aid kit, defibrillator and stretcher. “In the South West of England, we might use these facilities perhaps once or twice a year – for example, a search and then subsequent treatment of an injured walker on Dartmoor,” he explained. “In my three years with NPAS, we have never been deployed from the outset on a purely medical-based task because administering first aid is only a contingency. If we encounter the need when deployed, therefore, the primary asset would be a HEMS air ambulance,” said Chambers.
The NPAS fleet consists of 16 Eurocopter EC135s and four EC145s, plus four Vulcanair P68R fixed-wing aircraft. Captain Paul Watts, Head of Flight Operations at NPAS, qualified what Chambers has described: “NPAS operates under a Police Air Operators Certificate and does not have any approval to conduct SAR or HEMS operations, although we can land to give assistance to people in immediate life-threatening danger under the rules for casualty evacuation (casevac).”
Surveillance has a specific definition in policing terms, as Chambers went on to clarify: “We don't really do surveillance other than short-term monitoring of a scenario, but we might be involved in the culmination of a surveillance operation – for example, providing overhead monitoring of the stopping of a vehicle involved in organized crime.”
In a perfect world, the blended concept of a police unit’s aircraft also handling helicopter emergency medical services, search and rescue, and surveillance options could be a winning combination
In the USA, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Air Support Division (ASD) is the largest municipal airborne law enforcement organization in the world. Captain Sean Parker of the LAPD Command Staff, Air Support Division, was very clear in his statement about the role of police aviation in the city: “Our aircraft fly police missions only, no fire or rescue. We conduct surveillance in support of law enforcement needs.” Primarily, ASD missions are conducted as part of Air Support to Regular Operations (ASTRO) or Special Flights Section (SFS). ASTRO is the bread-and-butter mission at ASD and is thought of as a patrol car in flight. In fact, the ASD motto is ‘The mission is the same, only the vehicle has changed’.
It is a similar story with the Germany Federal Police Air Support Group, which has four helicopter squadrons located across Germany and carries out daily flight operations to support Federal Police tasks with a fleet of 19 Airbus EC155 helicopters. These missions can also include border, rail and maritime surveillance. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior said: “The police helicopters (PHS) of the German Federal Police are generally not used for HEMS or SAR. Police helicopters can be equipped with medical gear in order to ensure the medical care of police officers during police missions, but they are not integrated in the regular HEMS service. There are special helicopters for that purpose.”
South African Police Service’s (SAPS) aircraft are not used for HEMS either because this is not their primary role, as SAPS’ Brigadier Simon B Mahlangu commented: ‘We do, however, play a role in SAR operations with regard to aerial search, location, evacuation, hoisting and transportation of rescue teams.”
The diversity of police operations requires that any modification to the airframe or special use equipment is to be tested for the durability and the safety of the officers using them. A spokesperson from HeliMods, an organization that configures and modifies aircraft for police and other special operations explained their approach to modifications for police aircraft: “Our complete solutions are rigorously tested through a test and acceptance program with the aerial police force and the regulator inclusive of flight, ground and product testing that puts the mission systems through their paces in normal, emergency and extreme conditions.
“An example is the AW139 electrical quick release tactical insertion system for up to four rappelers or four fast ropers. The simultaneous release system has been tested to military standards for vibration, high/low operating temperatures, high-intensity radiated fields (HIRF), lightning effects, salt fog and reliability.”
Watts pointed out that the NPAS Operations Centre triages all requests and assigns the most appropriate aircraft having made a threat/harm/risk-based assessment of the task. “NPAS operates a fleet of rotary and fixed-wing aircraft which, although equipped with identical or similar camera and mission systems, are sometimes better suited to particular tasks. For instance, the fixed-wing aircraft are particularly useful for extended search/overwatch tasks due to their high endurance,” he explained. “Our EC135 ‘T’ fleet have a common system comprising of an MX15 camera and AIMs mission system, also used in the fixed-wing aircraft. The remaining EC135 and EC145 aircraft have a mix of FLIR Star Safire and WESCAM MX15 systems.”
Fixed-wing aircraft are particularly useful for extended search/overwatch tasks due to their high endurance
Fixed-wing aircraft are particularly useful for extended search/overwatch tasks due to their high endurance
“At NPAS, we’re optimized for police operations with a thermal/HD camera and Nitesun illumination,” added Chambers. “We don’t get to choose our tasking at unit level because we have a tasking/operations centre in the north of England at Wakefield in West Yorkshire who coordinate all NPAS assets,” he revealed. “Theoretically, the Exeter-based aircraft could, for example,
be tasked somewhere in neighboring Dorset and then, if a task concurrently arises in Devon, the Almondsbury (Bristol) aircraft could be deployed to come down for the Devon task. So, there’s a coordinated system of allocation and prioritization, which is decided upon by our operations centre at Wakefield at the request of the respective Force Incident Managers," explained Chambers.
For the Germany Federal Police Air Support Group, police missions always have priority. “Since there is no mixing of PHS police and medical flight operations, a corresponding priority decision is not necessary,” advised a spokesperson.
When asked if there a balance in the design of the aircraft to achieve all aims equally, SAPS’ Mahlangu replied: “In the case of SAR we prioritize the saving of lives and have no specific airframe optimization other than as directed by mission requirements, such as hoisting systems.”
Quality versus affordability
When acquiring aircraft and equipment, are there any trade-offs to be made between quality and affordability when it comes to publicly-funded purchasing? LAPD’s Parker was adamant in his response: “We do not trade-off between quality and affordability.” He asserted: “Our fleet consists of 16 Airbus A-Stars (B2 and B3s) and one Bell 412 medium lift. The A-Stars are the best platform that supports our flight profile; they’re agile and their performance parameters at sea-level over a congested city meet our standards.” He continued: “We purchase aircraft with the available safety features the market provides. This is augmented with mandatory check-rides every 90 days.”
Watts spelled out how NPAS sees this situation: “Any future police aircraft will be designed to a minimum specification and once this minimum standard is met, cost is likely to be the biggest factor in choice of aircraft/systems." He continued: “Funding will always be a major factor and will ultimately limit the number of aircraft that are operated, however, these aircraft must be capable of carrying out the full range of police missions and offer the benefits of the latest technology.”
We do not trade-off between quality and affordability
For the German Federal Police, the Ministry of the Interior implements all procurement measures in accordance with the requirements of the Federal Budget Code (BHO). “Article 7 of the Federal Budget Code requires frugal and economical budget management,” said a Ministry spokesperson. “For all financial measures, appropriate economic efficiency studies must be carried out, as well as cost and performance accounting in appropriate areas. With regard to economic efficiency, the following applies: the decisive factor is not the lowest bid price, but the most economical bid overall when it comes to price and performance,” they explained.
For South Africa’s police aviation, needs assessments are annually submitted for budgeting purposes and ‘normal procurement processes are followed,’ said Mahlangu.
A balancing act
The decisive factor is not the lowest bid price, but the most economical bid overall
For police aviation worldwide, balancing mission demands with organizational safety culture, budget constraints, equipment, crew capabilities, and operating environment can be a challenge, as the LAPD’s Parker explains: “We practice a strict safety culture, which includes a Safety Management System (SMS), a dedicated Safety Officer, monthly safety meetings, Flight Risk Assessment Tools (FRATs), squawks, weekly meetings with our mechanics, two instructor pilots embedded with our maintenance team, full-autos to the ground during 90-day check rides, and yearly sim training for all pilots.”
The LAPD’s helicopter crews operate over a congested and highly populated city in single-engine aircraft at low altitudes – the greater LA metropolitan area has 12,534,000 inhabitants. “There are many obstacles to avoid, including other aircraft,” said Parker. “The LA basin is home to several major airports, news agencies, the LA Fire Department, tour helicopters, etc,” he pointed out.
“Budgets can be an issue but must be addressed each year,” he commented. “Priority is given to purchasing new aircraft and ensuring crews maintain the highest skillset through consistent training. The LAPD air unit cannot have a mishap – it would have profound ripple effects,” he cautioned.
At NPAS in the UK, these conflicting pressures/risks are managed through a robust SMS and compliance system. “The SMS relies heavily on the inputs from frontline staff as well as information gathered from the wider aviation environment; this information feeds into training, procedures and equipment procurement,” commented Watts.
The South African Police Service is guided by a series of internal policy documents such as manuals of procedure, standard operating procedures, and quality assurance manuals, which are also in line with the South African Civil Aviation Authority’s rules and regulations. “Mission demands are aligned with budget allocations and constraints, with prioritization of critical missions based on the budget and available flying hours,” stated Mahlangu. “Advanced planning and multi-year procurement of mission equipment is made.”
Flying personnel (pilots and airborne law enforcement officers) undergo yearly or bi-yearly training as determined by legislative and other safety protocols. “Human Factors in Aviation awareness workshops are a critical component of our training intervention to our crews, including area-specific training such as mountain flying and hoisting,” Mahlangu disclosed.
Aerial policing often involves flying in built-up areas, during high-stress occasions, with a heavy traffic airspace, so situational awareness and reductions in crew workload are important to ensure safer and smoother operations. As well as training to ensure successful outcomes, an aircraft equipped for special missions needs to be fit for purpose; a spokesperson for HeliMods described how they help their police partners: “Our Tactical Mission System is built on next-generation cabin systems and incorporates an advanced suite of cameras, mission displays and software architecture to ensure tactical users are augmented with the latest technologies … providing police forces with enhanced situational awareness from internal and external cameras, functionality that supports multi-tasking across multiple systems and ergonomically designed workstations that feature large touchscreens to ensure the officers are focussed and comfortable.”
Multi-role or not?
As we are seeing from the national police forces interviewed for this feature, a multi-role mission profile is either considered not germane to the core purpose of aerial policing (as evidenced by the LAPD Air Support Division), or instead it can include a partial overlap with other non-mainstream police taskings, like SAPS’s role in SAR operations, for example.
Essentially, this means that in many cases there is no choice to be made by police aviation when it comes to prioritizing mission roles, and neither do they see a need to operate aircraft optimized for multi-role taskings that can fulfil all aims equally.