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Kootenai County helicopter unit still flying

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | October 23, 2023 1:08 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — About eight months after takeoff, Kootenai County’s helicopter unit is still flying.

County commissioners voted unanimously in February to approve an agreement between the sheriff’s office and the Kootenai County Regional Air Support Unit, a 501(c)(3) formed last year. The two-year, donation-funded pilot program for the helicopter unit is the first of its kind in Idaho.

Donated funds have been used to purchase and upgrade a $500,000 1994 BELL 206 helicopter, which seats four and doesn’t have hoist capabilities.

Lt. Mark Ellis is the unit commander and oversees the program. He said the unit has focused on training, particularly getting crew members accustomed to viewing and navigating Kootenai County from above.

“It’s something that law enforcement isn’t used to doing,” he said. “It’s trying to change their mindset and open their eyes to what we have to do.”

Since its launch, the unit has reportedly helped with 30 specific incidents or calls, including five search and rescue missions. The helicopter, dubbed ABLE1, has spent about 50 hours in the air actively patrolling or assisting local agencies with calls for service.

Kootenai County Regional Air Support Unit maintains a website, www.kcrasu.com, where the public can read an incident log going back to May. The entries outline when, where and how the helicopter has been used to respond to specific incidents.

Ellis said the unit has assisted other law enforcement agencies within Kootenai County. Just this week, Ellis said the unit helped Idaho State Police search for a man who had fled a traffic stop in the Wolf Lodge area and was reportedly armed.

ABLE1 has also responded to Boundary, Latah and Shoshone counties, Ellis said.

“Other agencies utilize it when they can,” he said.

The sheriff’s office has also used the helicopter to engage with the public, Ellis said. For example, ABLE1 recently landed on the North Idaho College campus for an event discussing careers in law enforcement with NIC students.

Ellis said the helicopter has become a recruitment tool for the sheriff’s office.

“All law enforcement is having a hard time recruiting people and retaining people,” he said. “We’ve got people applying just because of the helicopter.”

Annual expenses for the unit, including maintenance and insurance, are estimated to be about $71,500, according to the sheriff’s office. No county money has funded the helicopter unit so far, except for $10,000 Kootenai County previously allocated each year to Spokane County to use its helicopter.

“It’s here for the community and the most important part is it’s paid for by the community,” Ellis said. “It’s not taxpayer funded. It’s paid for by private business and continues to do so.”

Earlier this year, Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris said he’s confident the unit can remain donation-funded, just like the K-9 unit is, though Ellis indicated Friday that county funding may be considered in the future.

“We want everybody to know it’s worthwhile before we ask the community to fund it,” he said. “If we can save a life, it’s worthwhile.”

Info: www.kcrasu.com