King County Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit was started in 1991, says Hoalgan, and is the only full-time rotary-wing law enforcement aviation unit in Washington State. The unit carries out numerous mission types as they support their local area and the rest of the King County Sherrif’s Office. “We fly primarily law enforcement and search and rescue missions,” says Hoaglan. “Law enforcement missions [are] primarily in King County and SAR missions are anywhere in the western half of Washington State.” This can mean flying as far as the state’s southern border with Oregon and right to the Canadian border in the north.
Tracking criminals running from crime scenes, car chases and directing police from the air all fall under the remit of the law enforcement work the unit does. Search and rescue call-outs have not always been part of the Unit’s duties – it took this role up in 2007, says Hoalgan. The stunning Cascade mountain range and expansive lakes are where most of the unit’s rescues take place, he explains. The unit is fully equipped with NVGs, meaning that rescues can be completed both day and night.
King County’s two Hueys are Goodrich hoist-equipped
The service operates a number of aircraft from its base at Renton Municipal Airport (KRNT). Its oldest aircraft, UH-1 Huey helicopters, are single-engine machines first put into service by the US Army to assist with medevacs.
King County’s two Hueys are Goodrich hoist-equipped. Hoalgan said, however, that the service hopes to replace these choppers: “We are interested in obtaining a newer medium twin-engine helicopter to replace one of the Hueys to increase our operational safety while conducting hoist and over-water missions.”
The service also operates a Bell 407 and two Bell 206s, said Hoalgan. These aircraft are mostly used for aerial enforcement work. The base at KRNT ‘provides us with a central location to base our aircraft to respond county wide, but also close to the population centre of King County’, said Hoalgan.
Maintenance on the aircraft is performed by Olympia-based Northwest Helicopters Inc. (NWH). Small repairs may be completed at the unit’s base, but NWH handles the larger aircraft maintenance jobs.
When out on a standard SAR mission, a Huey is staffed by two pilots, three crew and two medics – if they are needed.
Partnerships are of great importance to King County. The service does not employ any full-time medical staff. In fact, the only full-time staff employed by King County are Sgt Reid Johnson and deputy pilots Josh Sweeney, Guy Herndon, Keith Potter and Hoaglan. “We are augmented by a group of eight King County Medic One paramedics and seven King County deputies that are hoist operators/rescue specialists,” Hoalgan says of the staff. Although budget and time constraints can sometimes make working with paramedics from King County Medic One (the country-operated ground EMS provider) challenging, Hoalgan asserts: “The benefits of working with King County Medic One are having world-renowned paramedics with us on missions to bring the patient care to the highest level.”
King County Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit does not regularly engage in patient transport though, Hoalgan states. “We will only transport victims on an as-needed basis,” he adds.
The Unit also benefits from other partnerships. There are several other agencies that the service helps, or is helped by, when performing its duties. “We are also a partner in Northwest Regional Aviation (NWRA), which includes entities in the region such as Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, Seattle Fire Department, Pierce County Sheriff’s Office, Washington State Patrol, Airlift NW and many others, including military units, in our region,” Hoalgan explains. These partnerships are useful not only for completing missions, but also when taking part in training exercises. Hoalgan says that the unit routinely trains with its regional SAR volunteers and other members of the NWRA.
Like many police units, though, tight budgets affect King County Sheriff’s Office Air Support Unit, says Hoalgan, and figuring out how to navigate these issues and come up with creative solutions is key.
This year, the Unit’s rescue helicopters have been threatened by budget cutbacks in the area. The two UH-1 Hueys are some of the few in the state equipped for SAR, and the worry was that the loss of these aircraft could mean lost lives all over the state. The Unit was previously told it may not receive any funding for its vital services come January 2017 by King County, after it was hit with a $50-million shortfall. Supporters of the unit were told in an email last year: “While we do work with other helicopter crews, there’s no guarantee those resources will be available when we need them, as they are coming from outside our county and possibly through different weather.”
Luckily, however, King County did not enforce these cuts. “We very much understand budgetary constraints, but when lifesaving resources are in jeopardy it is cause for concern,” says Hoalgan. “Thankfully, the King County Council understands that we are a resource that makes a difference and truly saves lives. The council has funded us for the next budget cycle and we will get to continue serve.”
Last year, the Unit celebrated its 25th anniversary, a special event for any service. Hoalgan told me what the unit did to celebrate the occasion: “We hosted an open house that was attended by many of our regional partners, and also by some of our vendors like Bell Helicopter, FLIR, Vislink, NWH.”
The Unit also had a special mini-documentary made about it by the Seattle Police Department Video Unit. The video features interviews with staff and those rescued by the service, and helps to underline how important and vital its services are to the community, from the breath-taking winch rescues up in the Cascades, to the work it does recovering dementia patients who wander out into the cold wilderness.
Despite the numerous challenges that the team faces daily, Hoalgan asserts that, for him, the most rewarding part of the job is: “Being able to be part of a professional team that rescues people that are injured and in need of medical treatment.” He adds: “When someone that is skilled, prepared and has an accident needs us, they leave an impression.”