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Published: Saturday, 12/9/2000

Chief: Copter a life-saver

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The helicopter would be used in police chases and for surveillance, search and rescue, night patrols, and other emergency situations. The helicopter would be used in police chases and for surveillance, search and rescue, night patrols, and other emergency situations.
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Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre acknowledges that $598,000 for a helicopter might seem like a lot of money.

But he believes a lot of factors besides the cost have to be considered.

“How much is one life worth?” he asked. “A lot more than this helicopter costs in a year.”

Chief Navarre plans to present a proposal to buy the helicopter with a combination of federal grant money and matching department funds at city council's public safety committee Tuesday.

The Robinson R44 helicopter the city expects to buy would cost $467,000 and would be used to oversee police chases and for surveillance, search and rescue, night patrols, and other emergency situations.

“The R44 is the number one selling helicopter by far. We've delivered over 850 of the R44s since they went into production in 1994. It enjoys an excellent safety record,” said Kurt Robinson, vice president of product support for Robinson Helicopter Company in Torrance, Calif.

The helicopter will be funded with $562,039 in federal funds through a Local Law Enforcement Block Grant, $62,449 in local matching funds from the police department's law enforcement trust fund, and $20,000 in anticipated interest from the federal grant. The total available funds are $644,488.

The helicopter, equipment, and pilot training will cost $576,205. The remaining $68,283 will be used to buy 16 video cameras for police vehicles, the chief said.

The base price of the helicopter is $294,000, but retrofitting for law enforcement use increases the cost. In fact, the city is spending $24,830 for additional equipment such as a searchlight and upgrades to a video recorder and a radio.

But the cost to set up the helicopter unit will go beyond the aircraft itself.

Flight and ground training for four patrol officers and a command officer, who will be selected from applicants to make up the helicopter unit, is estimated at $84,375. That's more than $16,800 per officer, all of whom will be trained as pilots and observers. Training at a helicopter training site, which has yet to be selected, is estimated to take two to three months, the chief said.

Ten fire retardant flight suits will cost $208 each, for a total of $2,080; Five fire retardant jackets will run $248 each for a total of $1,240.

Personnel equipment for the pilots, including five helmets, flying gloves, headsets, and sets of pilot supplies, such as computers, logs, and charts, are estimated at $8,580.

A fuel storage tank will cost $4,995, and ground support, a dolly, will cost $2,995

There will also be a one-time cost of nearly $2,000 to buy and install numbers on the roofs of police vehicles to help the pilots identify them from the air.

Chief Navarre said the yearly total operating costs, including salaries, for the unit is $400,650. Salaries for the officers, based on regular wages, are an estimated $351,480.

Basically, the remaining annual costs will be fuel - which is expected to be $30,304 - and maintenance on the engine and other scheduled and unscheduled repairs, which is expected to run to $18,866.

“We didn't ask the city to put money aside. We are going to use the grant and the law enforcement trust fund next year and in future years,” Chief Navarre said.

Toledo's estimates for annual fuel and maintenance costs are generally lower than costs incurred by other police departments with helicopters.

For example, Columbus spends $382,000 annually or about $54,571 on each of its seven helicopters. Fuel is $150,000 to $160,000, or $21,428 to $22,857 per helicopter.

Toledo's combined annual operating cost for fuel, oil, and maintenance is estimated at $49,170. That figure may be lower because Life Flight, operated by St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center and Medical College of Ohio Hospitals, has offered to provide free maintenance labor, hangar and office space, and remedial training for the first 18 months the department has the chopper.

Hospital authorities said this offer may be extended, depending on how the start-up period works out. Chief Navarre said he anticipates that offer being extended beyond the 18 months.

Barbara Pasztor, Life Flight director, said she did not know how much the free amenities Life Flight would provide cost because they have the items in place. For example, the hangar Life Flight has cost $1 million when it was built in 1988, she said.

However, hospital, police and fire officials, who may utilize the chopper for emergencies, insist Life Flight and its associated hospitals will receive no special benefits from their offer to assist the city.

“The police have nothing to do with [dispatching helicopters to] accidents and emergencies,” Ms. Pasztor said.

Two Life Flight helicopters and ProMedica Air, operated by the parent company of Toledo Hospital, take turns responding to emergency calls as directed by Lucas County Emergency Medical Services.

Chief Navarre said he hopes the police helicopter will be available daily between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., when 72 per cent of pursuits occur in the city. Pilots will not fly all eight hours however. During down time, pilots will be filling out logs and other paperwork, he said.

The chief's estimates for fuel and other expenses assume the helicopter will fly about 800 hours a year. It cannot fly during inclement weather, which the chief said could be 50 days a year. On those days, the officers in the helicopter unit will be assigned to a patrol car, he said.

Police helicopters are considered a “public-use vehicle,” said Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman at the Federal Aviation Administration's regional office in Chicago.

That means the city's police helicopter does not need to receive special clearance for their flights. However, the pilot must stay in contact with air-traffic controllers and inform them of their intentions, she said.

“They do not have to follow our rules,” Ms. Cory said. “If they need to go somewhere, they go.”

As far as insurance for the helicopter, Robert Summersett, the city's risk management officer, said the city will be looking at whether it is “appropriately covered.”

Mr. Summersett said the city does not carry liability insurance because the premium costs are so high. Any legal claims are paid from taxpayers' funds, he said.

Any injuries to the officers would be covered by their benefits, the chief said. The same goes in the unfortunate event of a crash.

Chief Navarre said the city might decide to spend $7,100 a month for a separate insurance policy for the helicopter itself.

Staff writers Lisa Abraham, David Patch, and Luke Shockman contributed to this report.



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