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For most regions of the United States outside of the largest cities, receiving emergency response support from a well-funded, technologically sophisticated, multi-mission air unit is not particularly common. But the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) Aviation Section exemplifies each of these characteristics, and works diligently every day to help protect the county’s 450,000 residents.
Encompassing seven cities, Seminole County covers 345 square miles (90,000 hectares) in central Florida. The SCSO Aviation Section currently uses two Airbus H125s to perform a multitude of missions in the area, including airborne law enforcement, aerial firefighting, search-and-rescue (SAR), and SWAT support.
Flying over 1,000 hours a year, the air unit responds to more than 400 calls from service deputies on an annual basis — several hundred of which come from the seven cities in the county, with the remainder from surrounding areas.
“If we’re called, we respond,” said Lieutenant Steve Farris, chief pilot with SCSO Aviation Section. “We are counted on by our friends and neighbors around Seminole County.”
Starting back in 1995, the SCSO Aviation Section’s first helicopters were two 1973 surplus Bell OH-58 aircraft for patrol operations, with just two full-time pilots and a few part-time tactical flight officers (TFOs). When the air unit later expanded into aerial firefighting and air ambulance work, it acquired a 1969 Bell UH-1 Huey.
The fleet’s transition to the Airbus Helicopters AStar began in 2006, when the air unit purchased its first AS350 B3. The OH-58s were officially retired in 2008, when an Airbus EC120 joined the fleet. While the SCSO Aviation Section was impressed with the B3’s performance in emergency response missions, it decided to sell off its EC120 and was able to budget for an AS350 B3e (now called H125) in 2013 — marking the air unit’s official transition to an all-AStar fleet.
According to Farris, the Sheriff of Seminole County believes in the region’s Aviation Section, and ensures that it has the funding it needs to support well-trained deputies and safe, capable aircraft for their missions.
The SCSO Aviation Section recently traded in its 12-year-old AStar for a brand-new H125, completed by Metro Aviation and customized for special missions. This aircraft, with its tailored upgrades, may be one of the most advanced helicopters in the airborne law enforcement field in North America.
“On our last completion with Metro Aviation on our Airbus H125, we really stepped it up and have some incredible interfaces,” Farris said, noting that Metro also modified and completed the air unit’s last two helicopters. “We were very impressed with Metro’s ability to meet our custom needs for our missions.”
Starting at the front of the aircraft, the nose of the H125 features the Garmin traffic system antenna, a downlink antenna, and wire strike provisions.
Climbing into the cockpit reveals the aircraft’s full avionics package with an added Garmin 750 system, complete with Bluetooth and Wi-Fi interfaced with the Apple iPad and ForeFlight app on board. Also installed in the H125 is the AeroComputers UC-6000 moving map system and keyboard, which work in cohesion with the Garmin system; the 6000 can send a waypoint to the Garmin system to provide the pilot with the address of an emergency scene. “This is an incredible feature for us with situational awareness,” said Farris. In addition, the 6000 system can be used to activate the Genesys HeliSAS autopilot, which will automatically fly the helicopter to a destination.
On the TFO’s side of the aircraft, Metro installed multiple UC speed chargers in USB interfaces, so TFOs can download UC-6000 video files from within the cockpit, without needing to access the aft avionics compartment. This side of the helicopter also features high-definition (HD) monitors and a digital video recorder (DVR) system from Avalex Technologies, as well as the MX-10 multi-sensor system from L3 Wescam — all critical components to support airborne surveillance.
“[The MX-10] allows us to look in the dark areas that you cannot see with the naked eye,” said Danny Casanova, TFO with Seminole County Sheriff’s Office. “We can see body heat sources; if a subject is trying to hide in the woods, we can see that.”
The H125’s new Trakka spotlight also interfaces with the UC-6000 and the MX-10, so TFOs can type in an address and have the spotlight and camera point in the required direction for a mission, he added.
For effective communication during flight, the aircraft has the Technisonic TDFM 9000 radio system. With a custom-designed drop down monitor system in the back, TFOs can run calls, control the radio, and talk on the radio with ease from the back seat.
Safety is also high on the priorities list for the SCSO Aviation Section. Airbus now manufactures its H125s in the U.S. with energy-absorbing front seats and crash-resistant fuel systems — a critical step toward reducing post-crash fires. “What I’ve been impressed with is that [Airbus] is always improving their product — making it safer, more efficient, and reliable, and adding newer technology to keep flight crews safe as well as make their jobs as efficient as possible,” said Farris.
Taking safety one step further, Metro designed numerous cameras that were installed around the helicopter, and crews have the ability to display the different camera feeds — rescue hoist, cargo hook, aft-facing tailboom, cabin/cockpit — on any of the monitors throughout the aircraft.
The SCSO Aviation Section even specially requested DART Aerospace Heli-Access-Steps for ease of access in and out of the aircraft.
“This particular aircraft has all the tools we need,” said Farris. “I would say this is the best set-up we have had to do our job. . . . We’re able to do all of our missions in one helicopter.”
Multitude of missions
For a small area, Seminole County is densely populated. SCSO is a correspondingly sized organization, with 1,400 employees, of whom 450 are sworn deputy sheriffs. Today the Aviation Section is made up of five full-time and two part-time pilots, and four full-time and eight part-time TFOs.
Supporting the ground-based deputies on the front lines through airborne law enforcement is the Aviation Section’s primary mission. “The [H125] is basically like a patrol car in the sky, except we can see a lot farther — we have all the latest technology on board,” Farris said.
“We have an 800-watt PA [public address] system that the pilots and TFOs can [use to] make announcements in neighborhoods, communicate with boaters — a wide array of different situations.”
For nighttime patrolling, the air unit’s crews use the infrared and night vision goggle (NVG) technology on the H125 to make the most of their vantage point from above when searching for the “bad guys.” The crews communicate back and forth with K9 units while tracking criminal suspects, and guidance from TFOs helps ground units avoid blindly running into dangerous persons. During the day, the aircraft’s HD camera also comes in handy to document incidents, scenes, and searches.
With the high temperatures and dry heat in central Florida, the unit’s secondary mission is providing aerial firefighting support. The SCSO’s newest H125, equipped to sling a 210-gallon Bambi Bucket, responds to brush fires around the county to support the fire department — often making multiple water drops to control flames before they threaten homes, Farris said.
“In the state of Florida, brush fires are a big concern,” he added. “Sometimes it’s hard [for ground vehicles] to reach locations out in the wilderness; we can get there first . . . and we’re able to get the fires under control.”
And for land and water SAR support, the air unit’s H125 is equipped with a Breeze-Eastern rescue hoist, capable of lifting 450 pounds (205 kilograms) with a 165-foot (50-meter) cable. The Aviation Section often receives calls on the numerous waterways of Seminole County to locate boaters or kayakers who have lost their way, and guide ground units to their whereabouts.
Of course, in some cases where water is involved, ground units aren’t able to quickly reach a casualty or missing person. When necessary, the air unit can carry and deploy a rescue swimmer who can “determine if the person needs medical attention or not and package them up appropriately,” explained Timothy Graham, aircraft commander for SCSO.
For SAR purposes, the Aviation Section decided to use LifePort seats on the H125 for their ease of removal and replacement — whether going from passenger to rescue hoist missions or back again. “We can put up to four seats in the back and always be ready for a rescue mission,” said Farris.
The combination of the LifePort seats and the H125’s large cabin also make for a comfortable ride. “There’s a sufficient amount of room to help assist with rescue hoist missions,” said Graham. “We’re able to get two or three persons in the back with plenty of room.”
Moreover, Farris said the open cabin allows for simple communication between everyone on board, plus comfort during long flights — since a typical shift at SCSO covers about 12 hours, and up to two hours at a time can be spent flying each mission before refueling.
In addition to its SAR capabilities, the SCSO Aviation Section also has the ability to support SWAT with its advanced airborne technologies.
“We’re the only county in the central Florida area and in our region of the state [that is] offering these types of missions,” Farris concluded. “Everyone [who has] aviation missions is doing law enforcement, but the firefighting is unique; the rescue-hoist missions are unique; SWAT deployments are unique. So we’re offering some special services that are unique to our county.”
Behind the controls
The SCSO Aviation Section trains its pilots internally from TFOs, although it hires some deputy pilots from outside the organization as well, since it can take years for a TFO to become fully qualified as a pilot. That path typically begins when a road deputy applies for a part-time TFO position, which can ultimately turn into a full-time position as openings appear.
TFOs receive their initial flight and ground instruction from a SCSO certified flight instructor (CFI) and gradually build up flight hours. SCSO has its own Elite TH-100 advanced aviation training device, which it uses to train pilots and TFOs in procedures such as inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC).
“Not only do we train the pilots to do this, but we train the TFO to assist them in an emergency if there’s an actual [IIMC] condition,” said Farris.
In addition, the simulator is used to teach all TFOs how to land the helicopter in an emergency if the pilot becomes incapacitated for any reason.
Farris added, “The simulator is also a great public relations tool where people who come by and visit can actually experience flying a helicopter . . . and [appreciate] the challenges and rewards of flight.”
When TFOs have built up enough flight hours and experience, these new pilots move on to initial H125 type training at the Airbus Helicopters factory, followed by taking on a day shift role with the air unit. To move forward into daytime operational flying, pilots are required to have 300 to 500 hours in a helicopter, and must take in-house night ops training and NVG training to move into nighttime flying.
For pilots coming into the SCSO Aviation Section from the outside, the agency looks for applicants to have at least 1,000 hours of flying time under their belts, and previous experience as a ground-based deputy sheriff or police officer.
Pilots flying the line in the Aviation Section complete annual refresher training with Airbus in order to stay current. The agency also uses its Elite simulator for instrument proficiency checks to confirm each pilot continues to meet the standards of performance required for an instrument rating. Keeping its pilots current and proficient is central to SCSO’s standards.With consistent training and cutting-edge aircraft, the SCSO Aviation Section is well equipped to support the men and women on the front lines in Seminole County, and to protect those who call the region home. During Vertical 911‘s visit to SCSO, it was clear that the pilots and TFOs truly love what they do.
“I enjoy every day I come to work,” said aircraft commander Graham. “I’m excited to get here because I have the pleasure of flying the H125 . . . and helping to protect people.”
The SCSO’s new H125 helicopter will be on display at the 2018 Airborne Public Safety Association Conference (APSCON) in Louisville, Kentucky, July 11 to 13 at Airbus Helicopters’ booth.