Police helicopter call-outs soar
THE number of call-outs answered by the Suffolk police helicopter is on course for a massive rise, it has been revealed.Between April and September 30, it has already been called to 938 incidents - an average of five call-outs a day - and if the trend continues it will respond to over 1,800 calls before the end of March.
By Danielle Nuttall
THE number of call-outs answered by the Suffolk police helicopter is on course for a massive rise, it has been revealed.
Between April and September 30, it has already been called to 938 incidents - an average of five call-outs a day - and if the trend continues it will respond to over 1,800 calls before the end of March.
In the first full year after its launch three years ago, it went to 1,276 incidents.
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Last night, police chiefs said the helicopter still represented good value for money, and stressed it was only sent to "important" incidents.
However, they voiced concerns over future funding as the police authority braces itself for a tight budget next year.
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The helicopter was involved in a total of 81 arrests between April and September compared to 95 arrests during the whole of last year from April 2002 to March 31, 2003.
Chief Superintendent David McDonnell, head of Suffolk police's operations department, which includes the force helicopter, said: "It's expensive but we consider it to be good value and it's carefully managed by the police.
"I, and all the crew, are Suffolk taxpayers and I don't want my taxes wasted on boys toys either and if I thought it was a waste of money I would ask questions about it.
"It's cost effective. It can search a square mile in 12 minutes which would probably take officers on the ground 60 person hours to do the same. All those officers would be pulled off other duties.
"All the deployments have to meet a set of criteria, such as is there an imminent threat to life? It's only deployed for important incidents."
Ch Supt McDonnell said a lack of funding from the Government next year would mean many aspects of the force's service would have to be reviewed, including the helicopter.
"We fear the future in all sorts of ways due to the likely limited budget settlement next year. The figure being bandied about at the moment is 4%.
"The Association of Police Authorities said we need 6% to stand still, therefore to have a stand still there has to be an increase in council tax. Obviously the helicopter will be considered among the cuts as with everything else."
But the police chief insisted: "There are people in this county today who owe their lives to the fact we have got a helicopter.
"There are only three out of the 43 forces who haven't got air support of some kind."
Liz Pettman, chairman of Suffolk Police Federation, said: "I think we would obviously support the use of the helicopter as long as it continues to be well used.
"If used effectively it certainly can significantly reduce the amount of time we take to deal with an incident. I think it needs to be continually reviewed."
From October 2000 to March 2001, the force helicopter attended 614 incidents and was involved in 61 arrests.
During April 2001 and March 31, 2002, it attended 1,276 tasks and helped in 115 arrests and between April 2002 and March 2003 it attended 1,315 tasks.
In addition to helping to make arrests, the force helicopter has recovered thousands of pounds worth of stolen property.
Between April 2002 and March 2003, it helped to recover about £57,000 worth of stolen property and so far this year has recovered £349,000 of stolen goods.
Ch Supt McDonnell said: "Some of it is theft of high value vehicles and lorry loads. There are things that wouldn't have necessarily been recovered without it.
"The helicopter found some stolen high value vehicles in a closed yard that was not visible from the ground. We had no intelligence to get a warrant to search those premises at all."
He said the force helicopter had played a vital role in a number of police operations including the search of a vulnerable missing person, a police car chase for suspects of a robbery, and to deploy armed officers at the scene of a firearms incident.
It has also been used to transport casualties to hospital following a road accident when the air ambulance has been unavailable.