One the most dangerous things we do every day is driving or riding in a vehicle. I don’t remember a week that has gone by that the paper didn’t have a story of someone who was either killed or severely injured in an automobile/motorcycle/bicycle accident on our highways. Many of us live in a paradigm of acceptance, including myself, of the carnage, that takes place on our roadways. We live in fear of a shark attack or flying in an aircraft when the mundane things — like driving — are usually the most dangerous.
The statistics certainly bear this out: In San Luis Obispo County, 1,450 people were either killed or injured in vehicle accidents in 2014. In Santa Barbara County, it was 2,510 folks who had their lives dramatically altered. Unfortunately, for a large percentage of this figure, the driver was under the influence of alcohol or some other drug.
When one of these all-too-common accidents occurs, our first responders (police and fire) are the ones who arrive on the scene of a crash at all times of the day and night, in every type of weather condition imaginable. In these circumstances, they feverishly work to save lives. Worse yet, they console the families members of those who are killed.
Often, the first responder on the scene of the accident is a single California Highway Patrol officer who has to decipher in a short time frame how to make the situation safe for all those involved. An irreplaceable tool that can make the difference in locating and rescuing survivors are the CHP’s air assets.
The CHP Air Operations Program has 150 crew members that fly 15 fixed-wing aircraft and 15 helicopters stationed at eight strategically located air units throughout the state. Located at the Paso Robles Municipal Airport, one of these air units covers the CHP’s Coastal Division that stretches along the California coastline from Santa Cruz all the way south to Ventura. It’s made up of eight outstanding pilots and flight officers and a contracted maintainer. They have one helicopter and two fixed-wing aircraft.
The crew members who fly in these aircraft are highly trained specialists that started their careers as patrol officers on our state highways, and all are required to be emergency medical technicians. The tactical flight officers are also qualified paramedics with previous real-time experience, such as with fire departments or in the military.
Last week I got a go flying with them in their Airbus H125s helicopter. While in the U.S. Navy, I amassed roughly 4,000 hours of flight time in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft as an enlisted air crewman operating all sorts of radars, sonars and sophisticated camera systems. I’ve got to tell you, I was so impressed with these peace officers’ professionalism, safety culture and airmanship, but also the quality of their rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.
Their helicopter includes a rescue hoist, medical gear, a glass cockpit with state-of-the-art avionics, a public announcement speaker that’s audible for those on the ground, numerous radios that can talk with any first responder on the sea, land or in the air, a bright searchlight that can switch to infrared light, and a camera turret with a FLIR 380-HDc camera system.
This military-grade optic system allows the aircrew to zoom in to see the smallest of objects, including license plates from thousands of feet away. The camera can also switch to a combination of visible and infrared light to look for missing persons or bad actors lurking in the darkest of nights or during the day in some of the most rugged landscape in the state.
Each year they perform numerous rescues that have saved many lives over the years while maintaining an impressive safety record. Not only do they perform law enforcement and search and rescue missions, but they work closely with the Department of Homeland Security by keeping a watch on our state’s vital infrastructure like bridges, electric transmission lines, dams, railroads, and power plants while also checking for wildfires.
On a bright afternoon a few years ago, I was operating one of the PG&E marine monitoring vessels off the coast of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant when out of nowhere a fixed-wing aircraft flew overhead with large lettering that spelled out “California Highway Patrol” on the underside of its wings. A moment later, I got a call on the marine radio channel 16 asking the boat off the power plant to switch the channel 7. When I did, the CHP officers in the aircraft asked who I was.
The next time you get pulled over for a traffic infraction, you should thank the officer for trying to save your life and others on the road.
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Did you know? PG&E’s clean energy and sustainability initiatives have been recognized by the 2017 Newsweek Green Rankings, which named the company as the greenest energy provider in the nation and the No. 4 greenest company overall.