Saturday, September 30, 2023

Sheriff's office aims high

Staff Writer | November 16, 2021 1:07 AM

COEUR d'ALENE — Purchasing a helicopter for the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office might not be as pie in the sky as it sounds.

The agency already is well along in lining up much of the $600,000 to $1 million purchase price for a BELL 206 LC Turbine helicopter, Kootenai County commissioners were told last week.

Adding a chopper to the KCSO arsenal has been in the works for "several years," Lt. Mark Ellis told commissioners. If implemented, the KCSO Air Support Unit would be the first of its kind in Idaho.

Law enforcement officials believe it would dramatically improve their response to natural disasters, missing person cases, suspect pursuits, and SWAT altercations.

"It's no secret that we're growing around this area. What we'd like to do is get ahead of the crime wave," Ellis told commissioners. "We want to make sure that we stay safer than our folks to the west of us."

Sheriff Bob Norris said the agency has frequently used private helicopters to assist in investigations. A recent example included the search for a murder suspect out of Spirit Lake.

Plus, Ellis noted, the county has already received a hefty amount of financial support from private and public entities.

"We thought, let's try to minimize the cost to the taxpayers in our community," he said.

Ellis said community members have already committed about $600,000 to purchase the chopper privately and donate it to the county.

Through his research, Ellis said KCSO has already identified someone who owns a BELL 206 LC located at the Coeur d'Alene Airport. The agency also has talked to another individual who has agreed to donate police-grade equipment to the proposed KCSO Air Support Unit.

"We've acquired most of the equipment we can," Ellis said. "We anticipate the annual out-of-pocket expense would be about $71,500."

Ellis said Kootenai County already allocates $10,000 to the Spokane County Sheriff's Office to use its helicopter. Insurance makes up almost half, approximately $31,000, of the $71,500 price tag. The remainder would go toward fuel, lubricant, and maintenance expenses, Ellis said.

To lessen costs to the county, Ellis said KCSO hopes to partner with regional law enforcement and public safety organizations like:

• Kootenai County Fire and Rescue

• Coeur d'Alene Police Department

• Post Falls Police Department

• Other Panhandle counties

• Nearby jurisdictions in Washington and Montana

KCFR already has committed to providing three EMTs for the helicopter and assisting in natural disasters and medical calls.

Norris noted that nothing is set in stone, as they wanted to gauge

commissioners' interest before moving forward. Though slightly hesitant, board members said the conversation is worthy of further consideration.

"$70,000 to save one life is a no-brainer," Commissioner Leslie Duncan said. "The capability of having this, finding the person and being able to deploy a medic right then and there may end up saving at least an hour by the time you call the medics and the ambulance."

Kootenai County averages 24 missing people per year in the 3,220,000-acre Panhandle National Forest.

"We have dozens of these missing people every year," Ellis said. "I understand that purchasing helicopters costs a lot of money, but that's why we came up with this alternative plan that the citizens came to us and said yes, we need that, let us fund it for you."

Commissioner Chris Fillios asked KCSO to develop cost-benefit data about the unit. He also asked if a helicopter is necessary, considering advancements in drone technology.

"I can understand the value," Fillios said. "I just want to make sure that (a helicopter is) truly justified for a county of our size, in our typography and just the general nature of what we do here."

While KCSO has considered using a drone, Ellis explained that the gadget's range is limited to hovering 400 feet above ground and a 17-minute flight time.

If implemented, the helicopter would perform routine patrol flights twice a week, on holidays, and be available "24/7" for emergencies, Ellis said.

"It's important that we establish something so that we don't have a rusting helicopter out at the airport," Commissioner Bill Brooks said.

KCSO would not hire additional personnel for the unit. Instead, the agency would train in-house deputies and use volunteers from Mountain Power Aviation. MPA is a Sandpoint-based company that has pledged two pilots and a mechanic to the program for free.

Ellis said Todd Stam, owner of Aspen Homes, is also willing to donate hangar space and a dolly system at the Coeur d'Alene Airport.

"We have a pretty robust group that wants to give back to this community," Norris said. "This is their passion and where they want to do it."

Besides donations, KCSO officials said they would host fundraisers to support ongoing maintenance costs.

"Our goal is to make this cost-effective and minimize the costs to our community," Ellis said.

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