Blue Eagle Helicopter of San Antonio adds fire and rescue to police anticrime mission
Eurocopter AS350 AStar and 4 Sikorsky/Schweizer 333s enhance safety and security in south Texas.
Unit members maneuver one of SAPD's 4 Schweizer 333s on the ramp at SSF.
Suddenly the detail had a powerful tool to assist officers on the ground in chasing down suspects. The response from patrol officers across the department was immediate and compelling—give us more!
Fortunately, federal grant money was available, and a plan was quickly developed to replace the 2 Hughes 300s with Schweizer 330SPs which could also be outfitted with FLIR. As part of the plan, an increase in unit staffing was authorized, adding a detective and 3 patrolmen.
Before the new equipment could be acquired, however, nature intervened. A massive windstorm struck downtown San Antonio, destroying one of SAPD's Hughes 300s and heavily damaging both the 500C and the other 300 at their downtown XS82 base atop the parking garage. It was evident that any major investment in new helicopters and equipment called for a more secure location to base them.
Accordingly, Blue Eagle flight operations were relocated to SSF, where they had begun.
The 500C was repaired and 2 Schweizer 330SPs joined the fleet, replacing the last of the Hughes 300s and making the SAPD helicopter unit an all-turbine-powered operation for the first time.
The new Schweizers quickly established their value, and in 1999, with the help of some additional federal grant money, the aging Hughes 500C was replaced with 2 Schweizer 333s. In addition, a new FLIR 6000 was acquired and the 2 older 330SPs were upgraded to 333 configuration.
Now with 4 Schweizer 333s, Blue Eagle added 2 patrol officers in 2001 and expanded its work schedule to include 24-hr operations Tuesday through Friday, coverage from 0600–2200 on Monday and 0800–1600 on Saturday, plus on-call status on Sunday.
As a symbol of its growing status and scope, Blue Eagle hosted the 2001 edition of the Airborne Law Enforcement Assn (ALEA) annual conference and exposition in San Antonio.
The addition of personnel and increasingly capable equipment prompted an upturn in callouts, particularly at night, and in 2004 Blue Eagle staffing was increased to its current level and operations were expanded to 24/7.
Adding an AS350
Chief Flight Instructor Officer Dusty Brittain coordinates all Blue Eagle training activity, including developing proficiency with firefighting and rescue equipment.
In 2007 a federal grant allowed the department to acquire its AS350 AStar and a whole new scope of operations opened up for Blue Eagle.
Soon after acquiring the AStar, the detail added an assortment of support equipment, including an SEI Industries 180-gal Bambi Bucket and an Escape Intl AirTEP airborne tactical extraction platform, which would allow them to perform water rescues, firefighting and a variety of short-haul missions.
Blue Eagle would become the first civilian aviation police unit to fly the AirTEP in the US.
Before any of these new capabilities could be implemented, however, it was necessary to train Blue Eagle's officers for a whole new set of skills and procedures.
Early on it was recognized that Blue Eagle's function would support the San Antonio Fire Dept, and an alliance was formed with SAFD's EMS unit to conduct joint training that would enhance the capabilities of both units.
Pilot Officer Kathy O'Connor is the only female member of Blue Eagle. She has served more than a dozen years in the detail and flies both the AS350 AStar and Schweizer 333s.
An outside vendor was hired in early 2008 to provide a coordinated training program with Blue Eagle and SAFD personnel that included firefighting and fast water search-and-rescue procedures. Training was also conducted with Travis County (TX) Star Flight.
Dusty Brittain, Blue Eagle's chief flight instructor, recalls the training as "definitely a new thing for us, with the focus on firefighting and search-and-rescue rather than law enforcement."
The program included dunker training—learning how to escape from a helicopter should it go into the water—and experience in swift water emersion "so we'd understand what we're putting our guys into," Brittain says, "and so we'd have experience learning to read the water. You see that eddy over there and it tells you not to put your man in here because of what the water is doing down below."
An important element for the Blue Eagle pilots was learning the language of firefighting, including hand signals and terminology, so that fire and police personnel can communicate effectively without confusion.
"It's critical for us to know the nomenclature of the fire—whether you're looking at the heel of the fire or the head of the fire, the right flank or the left flank," Brittain says. "Joint training has been invaluable to us."
They also trained to use the AirTEP, first non-live and later with live loads. "It gives us the ability to lift more than just a rescuer and a victim," Brittain says. "In a situation like Katrina, we could take 4 or 5 people off a rooftop. Or we can put backboard stretchers on it and take multiple injured victims."
Blue Eagle also had to train personnel to serve in the crew chief role on the AStar in order to use the new equipment. "The pilot can't always see," notes Brittain, "so he or she depends on the crew chief to put him in position." Crew chiefs are also pilots, so they understand the aircraft's capabilities and the pilot's challenges.
Crew chief training is done in tandem in the AStar, with a pilot flying with an instructor in the front seats and a crew chief and a crew chief instructor in the back. This is done to help develop teamwork between the pilot and crew chief as well as to maximize the use of resources.
"Our mission has changed significantly since we got the AStar," says Torres. "Before, we were basically a patrol operation supporting our guys on the ground. Now we have a much broader scope."
Part of that broader scope extends well beyond San Antonio. The 12-county region around the city has formed an organization called the Alamo Area Council of Governments, or AACOG (pronounced "a-cog"). Part of AACOG's function is to coordinate disaster relief. A request for assistance is routed from AACOG to SAPD headquarters. If Blue Eagle resources are available and appropriate, a flight is authorized and aid is soon on the way.