August 24, 2019

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Under financial scrutiny, Air-1 could secure a future with firefighting

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/5/2018 (457 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fighting fires isn't what Kelly Takatch signed up for when he became co-ordinator of the Winnipeg Police Service's oft-criticized helicopter unit.

But firefighting might just help secure a future for the so-called Air-1, amid a looming feasibility review that threatens to spark the end of the $3.5-million chopper.

In particular, the unit has been busy during a tinder-dry May, racking up assists on at least 10 of the fires that have kept the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service on its toes.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/5/2018 (457 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Fighting fires isn't what Kelly Takatch signed up for when he became co-ordinator of the Winnipeg Police Service's oft-criticized helicopter unit.

But firefighting might just help secure a future for the so-called Air-1, amid a looming feasibility review that threatens to spark the end of the $3.5-million chopper.

In particular, the unit has been busy during a tinder-dry May, racking up assists on at least 10 of the fires that have kept the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service on its toes.

Air-1 assists with city fires (May 1-8):

Click to Expand

-- First 100 block of Spence Street

-- Redonda Street and Paulley Drive

-- 500 block of Spence Street

-- 700 block of Crescent Drive

-- Transcona Bioreserve

-- Day Street and Gunn Road

-- 2500 block of Day Street

-- Main Street and St. John’s Avenue

-- First 100 block of Whiteshell Avenue

On May 14, for example, while searching for a missing person near city limits, Air-1's infrared camera spotted a brush fire. It radioed the location to the WFPS, which moved to put out the blaze before it got out of hand.

"Other officers, other agencies, they can see the advantages of Air-1, and they call upon our assistance all the time. The fire department is one, RCMP is another, (Manitoba) conservation, and we're always looking at expanding," Takatch said.

With a number of recent wins in the ever-broadening scope of operations for the helicopter, the Free Press had a front-row seat Tuesday for a night patrol high above the city, amid the heat wave and lingering worries about wildfires.

The night was clear and cloudless. The flight crew filled the cramped cockpit, as they monitored near-constant radio chatter.

From above, Winnipeg was little more than a map laid out below, with houses, backyards, swimming pools and cul-de-sacs forming suburban mazes; or downtown, where the city's tallest buildings extended up in the sky, with major roadways and rivers snaking to the city's heart like arteries.

The Free Press got a behind the scenes look at the Winnipeg Police Service's Air-1.

RYAN THORPE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Free Press got a behind the scenes look at the Winnipeg Police Service's Air-1.

While the unit didn't discover any fires for the hour-and-a-half the Free Press was up in the air, the calls crackled over the radio one after another: domestic disputes; suicide threats; robberies; traffic stops; assaults; armed home invasions.

"Most nights, it's just go, go, go, go, go, go. We're not up there just flying around, we're working. Let's say we go on three flights in a night. I would say you might see about 20 to 30 calls," Takatch said.

Around 10:30 p.m., having responded to a handful of calls, including two home invasions — one reportedly involving a sawed-off shotgun — and an assault, Air-1 headed back to the hangar to refuel. As the helicopter touched down, the radio chatter continued to crackle, with a dispatcher requesting Air-1's assistance.

"The calls almost never stop," Takatch said. Within 10 minutes, the helicopter would be refuelled and back in the air.

On the ground, the political terrain is much harder for Takatch and his team to navigate.

In March, the WPS announced it was requesting proposals for an external review on the financial feasibility of Air-1, which cost $1.8 million in 2017.

Takatch and his small, tight-knit team think their critics — who say the results aren't worth the price tag — are short-sighted and fail to recognize the value the unit brings to city police, as well as the money it saves taxpayers in the long run.

Call responses by Air-1 in 2017 (top 10):

Click to Expand

Well-being: 190

Traffic stop: 175

Break and enter: 167

Suspicious person: 162

Domestic disturbance: 145

Firearms: 100

Alarm: 94

Assault: 85

Suicide threat: 76

Disturbance: 65

"Winnipeg is a much safer city with Air-1 in the air every night, and I think that's something people need to understand. It gives the department a different dimension in terms of how we view the city, how we patrol the city and how we keep citizens safe," Takatch said

"Everyone that works in this unit wants to see (it) succeed, and we are succeeding. We believe in what we’re doing. We do have naysayers, but I believe it’s the vocal minority," he said. "I think if you asked the majority of citizens, they like the fact we’re up there every night, working every night, patrolling every night."

Nonetheless, Takatch admits the true value the $3.5-million helicopter brings to city taxpayers is hard to quantify, particularly in regards to decreased police overtime and investigation costs, as well as helping speed up the court system with open-and-shut criminal cases.

(imagetagFull)

How difficult that cost-benefit analysis is, as well as how vocal some critics have been, is one reason city police are now moving on an outside review of the operation. While the precariousness of the situation isn't lost on Takatch, he said his team welcomes the review.

"Sometimes, when you have these things hanging over your head, it’s not the most comfortable thing. Sometimes, it feels like we have to unfairly justify our existence. But we believe we’re going to come out of the review looking good," he said.

"We’re confident it’s going to be positive. It's an expensive tool to utilize, but I think effective policing can be expensive."

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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