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Working with Tactical Flight Officers

Air support is a great asset for law enforcement, but only when the flight crew and the ground cops know how to work together.

October 01, 2011  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

Advising the time delay will give the air crew clues as to how to plan their search. The longer the delay, the wider the search has to be.

When dealing with missing persons, physical descriptions are critical. Height, weight, age, hair color, clothing are standard. However, other descriptors are equally important and often omitted. For example, does the person use a cane or walk with a limp? These things will help the flight crew to differentiate them from other people in the area.

Ground units update each other constantly. However, when they use cell phones, IMs, or other methods that don't come across to the flight crew, air-ground communication breaks down. Every wasted minute in the air works against the agency in the long run. It ties up the air unit unnecessarily, expends costly fuel, and puts time on the helicopter, and that hastens mandatory maintenance.

Day and night operations are very different. Daytime operations are usually done with magnification devices. At night the flight crew uses thermal imaging or night vision goggles (NVGs). With thermal imaging the TFO sees in black and white and with NVGs it's green. In other words, "wearing a red shirt" can mean nothing to the air crew at night.

Please don't ask the flight crew how many suspects are in the house. The thermal imaging camera system cannot see through things. It is also significantly hindered by fog or moisture. The closer the temperature of the environment is to the item the flight crew is searching for, the harder it is to see a signature.

Because night operations are different, flight crews prefer not to use the spotlight to shine on the suspect unless requested or absolutely necessary. Using the spotlight cancels out the thermal imagery. If this happens, the flight crew runs the risk of losing contact because the camera system takes time to reset.

Ground units should provide GPS coordinates whenever possible. The TFO can plug these into the aero computer and use them to guide the pilot right to the spot. This is especially helpful with missing or lost persons in a wooded area.

The ground units should locate and describe the crime scene to the air unit. This is the starting point for the air search, as it would be for a K-9 search.

If the flight crew has NVGs, it would be great if the K-9s wore an NVG identifiable strobe; it makes tracking them much easier.

Ground units must realize that when they say, "You're right over it!" the helicopter has already moved hundreds of feet away. Also, the TFO will not see a flashlight beam on the ground while using thermal imagery. It works off of heat, not light.

When using the clock system to guide a helicopter in, it's always the relationship to the helicopter and not to the ground. It's their nine o'clock, not yours. The clock system is not as effective while the helicopter is in orbit as the position is always changing. Sometimes counting down to the spot helps with timing. "You're over it in 3, 2, 1, now."

Searching in a wooded area is harder from the air. Looking down through the trees with the naked eye or a camera system is often not very successful. The TFO can only see what's in the open breaks in the trees.

Having access to an aviation unit is a Godsend. But not knowing how to maximize its effectiveness in today's economy is just plain negligence.

Working with a TFO is almost an art form because it takes training and practice. For example, it takes about four months of training and practice to get a TFO up to speed. In comparison, how long does your agency train your ground units in helicopter operations? When was the last time you held joint training in perimeters, tracking, and selecting landing zones?

It takes a concerted effort by both ground and air units to be effective. Training to achieve air-ground coordination pays for itself tenfold when you are able to catch the suspect, find a missing person, and enhance officer safety.  

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He has 24 years of law enforcement experience, is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.


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