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Copter Pilots Will Try to Redefine Safety : 5 Police Agencies to Gather Today in Shadow of 3-Fatality Air Collision

March 25, 1987|JOSH GETLIN | Times Staff Writer

Representatives of the five law enforcement agencies that operate helicopter programs in Orange County are scheduled to meet today to discuss better coordination of high-speed pursuits and other airborne policies in the wake of this month's fatal police helicopter collision over Irvine.

Similar meetings may occur soon in Los Angeles among several police agencies, and sponsors hope that if regional cooperation can be achieved in Southern California's congested skies, it could become a model for the nation's 335 law enforcement helicopter programs.

Currently, these programs operate on their own, with few regional guidelines and little or no control from Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers.

Believed an Effective Tool

Airborne law enforcement, which took root in Southern California during the late 1960s, has expanded nationwide over the past 20 years, and police officials now believe it to be an effective tool in the reduction of certain street crimes.

Most of the programs have compiled excellent safety records, but nagging questions remain--especially in the aftermath of the March 10 Irvine collision in which two police officers and a civilian observer were killed and two other officers injured.

"It may be that we can reach an agreement on (high speed pursuit) procedures, primarily for this area. But conceivably it could spread to other areas as well," said Huntington Beach Lt. Robert Morrison, who directs the county's oldest helicopter program and helped organize today's meeting.

"It's especially important for our region because there are not that many places in the United States where you have so many helicopter programs operating in one area . . . you don't have this constant overlap as you do here."

Orange County officials cautioned that the Huntington Beach conference--which includes representatives from that city, Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and the Orange County Sheriff's Department--is not taking place in a panicky atmosphere. They pointed out that police helicopter programs have compiled good safety records since they began operating.

Still, this month's collision between Newport Beach and Costa Mesa copters while pursuing an auto--the nation's first accident involving two police helicopters--has demonstrated the need for better communication, according to Morrison.

The collision occurred when the Costa Mesa helicopter attempted to "pass off" the pursuit of a car theft suspect to the Newport Beach aircraft when the chase entered that city. Although the two aircraft were in radio contact with one another, some officials have speculated that there may have been confusion over the direction both helicopters were turning during the maneuver.

Cites Safety Record

In the aftermath of the Irvine incident, Los Angeles Police Capt. Robert Woods, who directs the nation's largest municipal police helicopter program, said that coordination between airborne law enforcement agencies in Southern California could be improved. He stressed, however, that the safety record of such programs has been excellent.

"I want to approach my peers in other organizations and see if we can work out some . . . practices at least to better coordinate these things because we're always running into each other's jurisdictions," Woods said.

"The sheriff's coming into the city, and we take pursuits and go all over the place. There needs to be a better coordination. The system works now, it really does, but . . . we're always looking for ways to make it better."

High-speed pursuits involving helicopters are relatively rare, and the great majority have been conducted successfully, Woods said. In these situations, pilots typically look out for the safety of officers and civilians on the ground, using radio communications to direct traffic away from congested intersections and steer police away from ambush situations.

Just as important, police pilots rely on a special radio frequency to keep in touch with each other during incidents, so their respective locations are well known.

However, the Irvine collision underscored the problems--and conflicting policies--that can surface when several law enforcement agencies get involved in a chase. While the Orange County pilots followed a "hand off" policy, for example, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department helicopters prefer to maintain the lead position even when a high-speed chase crosses jurisdictional lines, a spokesman said.

Policies Could Differ

"We have not really sat down and compared policies . . . ," Morrison said. One city's guidelines on a high-speed pursuit "could be totally different from ours, and we don't even know that," he added.

"If we could come up with a policy or something positive that has come out of this tragedy . . . we would then let that spread throughout the other counties, up into Los Angeles County, and from there maybe across the nation. We're always trying to make this a better system."

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