Sheriff’s helicopter a necessary, but expensive, tool
On June 22, Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office called out helicopter Henry 1 to search for a suspect in Taylor Mountain Regional Park due to its remote access. The man was later caught.
In April, five people were rescued from the Russian River, pulled out one-by-one with a rope from Henry 1.
The county’s helicopter sees a lot of work in a variety of fields, but how much does it cost to operate?
The answer is $4,050 per hour.
“We have an hourly cost from our budget,” Community Engagement Liaison Misti Wood said, noting that there are a lot of variables that go into each flight.
“They have air patrol, they have rescues, they have demonstrations like at schools and public events. They have aerial surveillance … So there are a lot of different kind of missions that Henry 1 flies and those missions have different times associated with each of them,” she said.
The difficult part of coming up with the cost per mission is when one mission bleeds into another, she said. Therefore, it’s looked at as an hourly rate, which includes fuel insurance and labor, among any additional costs.
This year, the county has budgeted nearly $2.03 million for Henry 1, or 500 hours of flight time.
Between June 1, 2018 and May 31, 2019 Henry 1 flew 1,110 calls. This includes calls for agency assists outside the county. Henry 1 does an average of 70 to 100 rescues per year, Wood said.
Henry 1 is operated by at least a pilot and a tactical flight officer. There are two pilots for Henry 1, one with a total benefits and salary of $227,012 per year and the other in the benefits, both make a salary of $131,108 per year.
The tactical flight officer’s total package comes in at $194,678, with $133,653 in salary.
Depending on the mission, occasionally there is a medic on board as well, but they are not considered part of the Henry 1 staffing in the 2019-20 budget.
Wood said that the call to bring Henry 1 out is the first responders’ decision. Then the call is put out to the pilot, who may call it off if it is seen as unsafe to fly, such as in times of high wind.
Wood said that the responders and Henry 1 operators never look at the cost when taking the copter out.
“What we look at is what is needed to best respond in the interest of public safety. So we look at Henry 1 as one of many tools that we have at our disposal,” Wood said. “We’re not including the cost in that moment … We’re thinking strictly from a response perspective.”
The helicopter is equipped with a few tools that boost its usefulness. Not only can it get to places most vehicles cannot, it is equipped with cameras that can help spot stranded hikers or hiding suspects. It has a regular daytime camera as well as a forward-looking infrared camera, which is the type often shown displaying heat signatures in purple to bright yellow colors.
Depending on the mission, there can occasionally be restitution paid for Henry 1’s use. Rescue missions never use restitution, but Wood said criminal cases can use the process if it is warranted. Restitution is not unique to Henry 1 costs, rather it can be used to recoup costs for apprehension in general.
Wood said that Henry 1 will be operating in the same capacity as it has moving forward.
“We can respond very quickly in rescue missions, particularly with the long line,” Wood said.
She noted the cameras on Henry 1 have allowed a greater level of communication with responders on the ground in both law enforcement and firefighting. She also noted that the helicopter goes over well at public events.
“It’s a great relationship builder at community events, because everybody loves Henry 1,” she said. “So, it’s a great way to show people where their tax dollars are going and let them touch it, see it, feel it, talk to the people who fly it. That sort of thing.”
Henry 1 was approved for purchase in August 2017 for a total of $5.19 million.
Of that, $2.79 million was funded through county civil asset forfeiture funds. Civil asset forfeiture is policy that allows law enforcement to seize assets from someone suspected of wrongdoing. There has been controversy over the use of civil asset forfeiture as it does not require those whose property was seized to be charged with a crime. Those against its use decry it as “policing for profit” while proponents say it is a useful funding mechanism.
Laws continue to change in civil asset forfeiture, recently with SB 443, and there is an added layer to what rules are followed in seizures as local agencies sometimes team with federal agencies and therefore follow typically looser federal policy.
It was not known as of press time what the ratio of civil asset forfeiture money had come from cases where charges were pressed.
The remainder of the helicopter’s costs were funded through an $100,00 Urban Areas Security Initiative grant and a financing plan for $2.3 million over the course of 12 years.