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Citizens Police Academy-week 8: helicopter & animal services divisions

Last Thursday my CPA group started out at the FCPD Helicopter Division. The division has two helicopters, each of which has a crew of three ready to go twenty-four hours a day: one pilot and two flight officers (police officers who are also nationally certified paramedics).

The Bell 407 helicopters (soon to be upgraded to Bell 429) are used primarily for medevac and police missions. FCPD was the first law enforcement unit in the country to add Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) surveillance devices to its helicopters. FLIR allows crews to search for suspects or missing persons via thermal imaging, and the footage can be downlinked to a scene commander on the ground, if needed.

In my ride-along on Friday, we were looking for the driver of the car that drove through a fence and totaled his car. The helicopter division supported that mission by using FLIR to search for him. The way it works, the hotter something is, the brighter white it glows. The cops call people on the screen “white Gumbys”. 😉

Crews can also fly with night-vision goggles (NVGs) so the pilot and front-seater can see in the dark. K-9 animals can be outfitted with tiny IR beacons to make them visible from the air without alerting a suspect to their location. The helicopter also has the ability to spotlight an area with IR, making it visible to those using night vision/FLIR, but not to the naked eye.

The FLIR cameras are now high-quality enough to produce exceptional video from half-a-mile or more away, and can also provide the latitude and longitude of the object/person in focus!

In 2009 the use of FLIR by the FCPD Helicopter Division contributed to 92 direct finds and 300 criminal charges filed.

Common types of missions include:

  • medevac for trauma incidents where an ambulance would take too long.
  • water rescues.
  • aerial reconnaissance and photography.
  • SWAT missions (rappelling or rooftop insertions, aerial gunnery).
  • vehicle and foot pursuits.
  • locating missing persons (e.g. children, Alzheimer’s patients), sometimes through Project Lifesaver which registers at-risk people and outfits them with a beacon the helicopter division can track (100% recovery rate since inception).
  • DOD train escorts.

The FCPD averages around 3000 missions per year, totaling approximately 1500 flight hours.

After the Helicopter Division presentation and tour, we headed over to the Animal Service Division. ASD is located at the county animal shelter.

Animal control officers (ACOs) are sworn police officers who go through the same academy and training, but they’re hired into the academy specifically to fill ACO positions, and they don’t generally cross over to the regular police force. The pay structure is also different.

Their job is to regulate and protect animals by enforcing the Virginia and Fairfax animal laws and ordinances. And, of course, to protect people.

The shelter is not no-kill, but they make every effort to place an animal with a good home, and will not euthanize an adoptable animal. The shelter takes all animals, small or large, and they offset capacity issues with an extensive fostering program.

ACOs investigate cases of animal abuse, hoarding (in this case, usually cats rather than household junk), and neglect. Even if they can’t bring charges against an owner, they can remove the animal from an unsafe situation.

Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    Fascinating. I was wondering how the helicopter searched for the person involved in that wreck at night. We’ve all seen the huge spotlight on cop shows, but this is much more advanced and effective.

    Animal Control has to be one of the hardest jobs. It would be for me, at least. I’m sure there are always good people who lost their pet and are thrilled to have help recovering them, but would assume for the most part you see a lot of the badness in people and how they take it out on their animals.

    • Reply

      Yeah, I probably should have mentioned the infrared camera in the ride-along post. It was cool to learn about the Helicopter Division one night and then see them in action the next night.

      I know what you mean about the animals. We saw a puppy that was recovering from multiple broken bones. =(

      Someone asked the ACO about how she deals mentally with animal abuse/neglect cases, and she said she focuses on the good part of it: they’re getting the animal into a better situation, whether that’s a new home or heaven.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Aaron. Yes, a ride-along in the bird would be beyond awesome! But too much liability and expense, I’m sure.

      I have been on a helicopter once. The Engineer and I splurged on our 10th anniversary trip to Maui and took a van to Hana with a helicopter ride back. Amazing view!

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