SPECIAL UNIT PROFILE
Broward County Sheriff’s Office provides multimission capability in south Florida
Av unit supports agency’s air, land and marine divisions.
By Brent Holman
ATP/CFI/Helo. Airbus A320, Bell 206L
BSO Aviation Unit operates an all-Eurocopter Fleet—2 EC135s, an EC130 and an AS350—to serve Broward County’s law enforcement and EMS needs. Base is FXE (Exec, Fort Lauderdale FL).
Deputy/Pilot Carl Spear placed the Eurocopter EC135 in a high-altitude orbit above the bedroom community in north Fort Lauderdale FL while Flight Medic Richard George operated the imaging equipment.
Spear’s attention had been drawn initially to a truck moving slowly down a neighborhood roadway. George trained the thermal imager on the vehicle as it proceeded down the street with 2 occupants, one of them exiting the truck and approaching other vehicles parked in the driveways of adjacent homes.
His suspicion on high alert, Spear, who was flying the Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) helicopter on the midnight shift, took up a standoff position at a higher than usual patrol altitude to minimize the EC135’s noise footprint and lessen the chance of alerting the potential suspects.
The BSO crew, including second Flight Medic Tammy Riddle, sensed that what they had begun to observe moments ago while on routine patrol over Broward County was likely developing into criminal activity that they could stop before it even began.
From their 1200-ft reconnaissance altitude, the crew watched as the second subject exited the slow moving truck and purposefully tested the doors of several vehicles parked along the right of way. Only a few cars into his criminal mischief the subject found an unlocked auto, entered it and appeared to clean out any contents deemed valuable.
Having already alerted nearby ground units, once probable cause was clear, the Aviation Unit team coordinated the ground attack, which was swift and sure. Officers on the ground quickly surrounded the perpetrators in their vehicle, effecting an arrest after a short but unsuccessful attempt to flee on foot, and recovered a significant amount of stolen property in the process.
“The ‘good’ things that I have gotten into are because I was already flying,” says Spear, summarizing the successful outcome of that night-time apprehension. Unit Coordinator Deputy/Pilot Christine Ponticelli adds, “The noise of the helicopter and the light at night tend to contain the subject,” reducing the chance for aggressive behavior or attempts to flee.
Spear continues. “When I’m involved [with the helicopter], it’s much more low key for the units on the ground,” he says, discussing the proactive role that the BSO Aviation Unit plays in the large, multifaceted south Florida law enforcement agency.
Last year alone, the unit flew more than 2000 missions (and 2400 hrs) supporting law enforcement efforts and providing life-saving EMS services to the citizens of Broward County.
What began in the 1960s with a leased Cessna 150 in BSO colors doing traffic patrol has grown into a dynamic public safety organization that conducts law enforcement and EMS missions in support of Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti’s BSO.
Early on in the history of the Aviation Unit the humble Cessna was joined by a Piper Cherokee 140 on loan from the manufacturer and affectionately called “Peter Piper.” These 2 fixed-wing aircraft were the sum total of aviation law enforcement assets in the county and served many roles, but primarily traffic patrol and reporting.
Shortly after getting these 2 aircraft, a federal grant provided funding for BSO’s first helicopter—a Bell 47, acquired specifically for law enforcement missions. The Bell 47 was staffed by a full-time pilot and another part-time aviator.
BSO took the opportunity to take additional military-surplus Bell 47s, obtaining enough to make 1 more flyable ship. But it was in the early 1980s that BSO made its first foray into turbine power, trading the 47s in on Bell 206 JetRangers. Then Sheriff Nick Navarro was a great supporter of airborne law enforcement.
He brought the first Eurocopter AS350 AStars onto the force and eventually placed an AS365 Dauphin into service—primarily for EMS—in the early 1990s. Since then Eurocopter has been the manufacturer of choice for BSO, whose current fleet consists of 2 EC135s, an EC130 and an AS350.
Today’s BSO Aviation Unit
BSO Aviation Unit operates out of a hangar/office facility at FXE. The space serves as home to the unit’s pilots, flight medics, maintenance technicians and administrative staff, as well as BSO’s Marine Unit.
Broward Sheriff’s Office Aviation Unit is led by Sgt Dale Owens, the unit supervisor and director of ops for the FAA Part 135 certificate. Owens is a veteran of BSO, having served since 1976 with the Dept of Detention and in road patrol assignments before joining the Aviation Unit.
With pilot certificates and helicopter ratings already accomplished, Owens joined the Aviation Unit in 1987, flying the JetRanger. Taking the dir ops job 6 years ago, Owens focused on creating a “100% professional LE pilot group, operating on a 135 certificate.” To do that, one of his first tasks was to rewrite the standard operating procedures that governed the LE mission and the EMS role the unit served.
Owens enlisted the help of Unit Coordinator Ponticelli, who was then chief pilot. She recalls, “Dale’s rewrite of the SOPs focused on CRM, with the goal of making the unit a cohesive team that included the LE pilots and the flight medics.” Ponticelli continues, “Training for both pilots and flight medics was very important, as well as a streamlined chain of command” that could be more responsive to the needs of the unit as a whole.
Today the unit’s 4 Eurocopter aircraft are outfitted for both LE and EMS. Just under 90% of the 2000-plus sorties BSO flew last year were dedicated to law enforcement, while about 300 were calls for EMS medevac. The work that BSO does is divided among 8 full-time pilots—including Owens, Ponticelli and now-Chief Pilot Brian Miller—plus 1 reserve pilot.
Fifteen flight medics, including supervisory Dept of Fire Rescue personnel, staff the unit on 24-hr shifts, serving as observers on LE flights when not performing medical duty. The unit also employs 2 full-time mechanics and 1 part-time mechanic under the leadership of Dir of Maintenance Thomas Edison.