When you see the warning sign on the door, “Beware of rotors,” you know this is not your standard county office.
This is the hub for the Police Department’s helicopter division, which is on duty 24/7 ready to respond in minutes to calls for help and assistance in Fairfax County and beyond. Crews fly more than 150 helicopter missions per month and more than 80 medical evacuations a year.
When it hears the distinctive ring of the “bat” phone from our 9-1-1 center, the team could be sent out on Fairfax 1 for any number of reasons. Several recent missions include:
- Robbery at Franklin Farm Drive (Aug. 15)
- Police pursuit in Fairfax City (Aug. 13)
- Critical missing person in Prince William County (Aug. 12)
- Sexual assault in Washington (Aug. 11)
- Homicide in Huntington Park (Aug. 5)
In January 2013, the helicopter’s infrared cameras tracked down two young brothers lost in Spotsylvania County woods in frigid weather. “They most likely wouldn’t have made it if we hadn’t been there,” says Jason Post, the division’s chief pilot. Here’s the video finding the brothers:
In addition to its law enforcement responsibilities, Fairfax 1 is also configured as a medical evacuation unit.
“We are the first in the world to have (this type of) helicopter for both medevac and law enforcement missions,” says 2nd Lt. Jen Lescallett, the chief flight officer. “Sometimes we need to be both. We track down someone, somebody at the scene is injured and we medevac them out.”
Fairfax 1 is often called on for critical cases, bad accidents and burns, when travel time is essential.
“An accident might happen near a hospital, but if traffic is an issue, we can get there much faster in the air,” notes Lescallett. Police and Fire and Rescue personnel are trained to figure out the best landing areas — flat enough for the helicopter to set down, no wires to tangle the rotors. Sometimes it’s a nearby athletic field, sometimes it requires blocking off a section of a major highway.
There are two helicopters; the one on duty is always the official Fairfax 1. Each helicopter crew includes one pilot and two paramedic-qualified flight officers who work 12-hour shifts and average two to four flights a shift. The pilots are civilians, the paramedics are police officers. Before they can go out on missions, the flight officers must complete an intensive year-and-a-half of paramedic training.
“When you are in the helicopter, your view of the world changes,” explains Lescallett. “You can see if someone might be holding something in their hand, where they are hiding or running to or if suspects are in a position to ambush the officers.”
While in the air, the flight officers can operate the radio and cameras. With a GPS system tied into the county’s tax maps, they can home in on an exact address.
The helicopter’s view from 800 feet or higher is shared with patrol officers and supervisors on a Fairfax 1 ride during their orientation. “It shows them how to best use us, what our perspective is and a clearer understanding of what we can and cannot see. They learn to be as specific as possible when relaying information to us,” says Lescallett.
The unit has been flying the skies of Fairfax since 1972.
— ALEA Headquarters (@PublicSafetyAv8) August 13, 2015
The helicopter division participates in community outreach. If you are a member of a community organization based in Fairfax County, you can request a demonstration or fly-over. The crew can fly to a predetermined location to meet your organization, fly over a special event, or meet your group at the hanger so you can see the helicopter first hand (examples include Fairfax County Public Schools, boy scout troops, National Night Out events). “It’s the public’s helicopter, too!” Lescallett points out.
What drives many on the Fairfax 1 team is both altruistic and practical, “We can make a difference in lots of people’s lives by getting critical cases to hospitals and catching bad guys to keep the community safe,” says Post. Lescallett hesitates a moment, then says, “And it’s cool.”