There are some basic facts that need to be cleared up. You wouldn’t think “facts” needed clearing up would you because they are facts; the truth and therefore should be clear to all. Unfortunately Mr Green the Policing Minister has either been misinformed or is not telling the truth.
Starting with NPAS’s headline figure “20-minute response times for 98% of the population” this is plain untrue and was based on flawed maths by people who didn’t understand what they were talking about at NPIA. Here’s how they worked it out. Find out how far a helicopter flies in one minute (2 miles) multiply that by 20 minutes = 40 miles now get a map of the UK and draw 40 mile radius circles around each of your proposed helicopter bases and see how much of the Country that covers – ooh looks great. Pat each other on back. I’ve seen the maps, this is what happened. The lie is that they are calling this the “response time” and it’s not, it is the flying time assuming (wrongly) that the helicopter is airborne over its base at the time of request and travelling at 120 kts towards the scene of the crime which plainly it isn’t. To use this figure is misleading nonsense. Response time is the time between a cop on the ground shouting up “get me a helicopter” and a helicopter arriving overhead.
Mr Green “They will be deployed faster and there will be more aircraft available to do it, so people will get a better service now”. Utter nonsense! Each police air support unit (not counting the Met) has an operations room at base where the “aircrew” monitor the radio channels around their force areas so that they hear a lot of jobs instantly the bobby says “get me a helicopter” or “vehicle failing to stop” or whatever we can then be airborne in 2 minutes. This is fast response air support, it’s a model that’s worked for over 20 years. We used to have a dedicated air support channel that any officer in the force could use to call us at base and brief us about a task. Dog handlers being deployed to burglaries in progress often changed channel to tell us about the incident directly, cutting out communications room delays and got us en route. The rest of the time the communications staff in control rooms around the County radio or phone the office directly, if we need any further info at that point to make a decision on we talk directly to the officer at the scene and get a full, proper briefing. This is how it should be, it’s fast and efficient and gets results. When I say results I mean results as cops understand them i.e. criminals arrested not as government and ACPO understand them i.e. result = money saved.
Obviously someone has to QA deployments as helicopters are expensive to fly. Until now that task has fallen to the highly experienced crews who fly in the aircraft and know exactly what their machine and search equipment are capable of. We often have to decline to attend and cops on the ground find this frustrating but it’s a limited resource, expensive to run and the cops in the aircraft know when they can and can’t help.
Under NPAS the deployment model looks like this
Response PC in rural town says “get me a helicopter” – local comms staff send an extract of the incident log electronically to a control room in Bradford where a civilian comms operator with no air support knowledge or expertise reads the incident and compares it to a “deployment criteria” they were given this week and tries to tick all the boxes that mean she can deploy a helicopter. If the log isn’t clear about what’s going on (and they often aren’t in the chaos of the first few minutes of an incident” they will send the log electronically back to the local comms operator with some questions typed on and ask for clarification. The local comms operator who is now up to their neck in local cops calling up with details of suspects being chased or running a pursuit commentary is then expected to get the answers from the cops at the scene, type them back on the log and re-send it to Yorkshire. Assuming there are no more questions and the NPAS operator is now satisfied of the need to deploy an aircraft he/she will try and work out where on a map of the UK rural town is and then work out which is the nearest aircraft. If you were asked to point to the village of Burton Leonard on a map would you be able to? quickly I mean, fast response quickly. How quickly could you access a system that told you it’s in North Yorkshire and then access another system to show you if any aircraft are nearby and if not find out which air base is nearest to assist the officers trying to track a farmer with a shotgun across fields when he’s lost the plot and is about to do something terrible. “They will be deployed faster” utter nonsense!
I spoke to some colleagues at Greater Manchester air support unit recently and heard how they were listening on one of their local radio talkgroups when they heard the report of shots fired and officers down in Mottram. They responded immediately and where overhead the scene in minutes. Unfortunately on this occasion no speed of response was going to save Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes but if things had worked out differently, if Dale Cregan had got in his car and gone on a wild chase instead of going to Hyde police station the aircraft would have been there to make sure he didn’t get away. I worry about this new despatch system, it can’t work in the way it should and officers on the ground will suffer for it.
Mr Green “They will be deployed faster and there will be more aircraft available to do it, so people will get a better service now.”
There will be less aircraft! 25 reduced from 31 – enough said on that point.
“There will be more helicopters available more of the time because you’ve got the resilience of having a national structure,” said Mr Green. WRONG! There will be less helicopters available for less time. Take the North West region as an example. A couple of years ago there were 5 aircraft covering 5 counties. This was probably one too many as Cheshire and North Wales have a low demand and could maybe have shared one. In any case 3 of those 5 aircraft were on duty 24hrs a day. Today there are 4 helicopters covering 5 Counties and only one of them covers 24 hours, the other 3 provide 20 hour cover, this was as a result of regionalisation in preparation for NPAS next year. So how will this improve further under NPAS? Will the north west have “more helicopters available more of the time” No. The number of aircraft will stay at it’s reduced level and the 20 hour units will be cut again to 19 hours losing 1095 hours of aircraft availability each year for NO additional cost saving.
Chief Constable Alex Marshall said of the old system: “Artificial boundaries have meant that helicopters are restricted to operating within their own force area or consortia”.
That’s just not true. Air Support Units within regions have for many years had mutual aid arrangements to cover for each other during aircraft maintenance. For years we have attended lots of incidents in neighbouring force areas when incidents have needed cover, no restrictions. Making the areas of response bigger wont make it more efficient or make helicopters able to respond to tasks outside their regions because “they don’t have the endurance” they can’t carry enough fuel for bigger response areas. It’s a fact, they can’t fly to far flung places and then do a search because they will run out of fuel and have to go back to base as soon as they get on scene.
The main stay of borderless tasking rests on the idea that if one aircraft is operating near the edge of it’s old County border and an incident occurs just over the border they will be able to respond quicker than the aircraft based in that county. It is true that in the past, on very rare occasions, we might go to a job 20 miles from our base and realise that another force’s aircraft was operating 10 miles away. Could they have got to the scene quicker than us? Well possibly they could if they weren’t already dealing with their own incident. They could go to our job when they had finished their job but we would probably have arrived by then anyway. The point is, helicopters aren’t floating around aimlessly, if they are deployed on a task then can they be deployed on another task? The new control room in Yorkshire has been given a flow diagram to enable them to work out if they can remove an aircraft from one task and send them to another task. If they can’t decide what to do they refer it upwards to a silver commander for a decision (tick tock) and when they finally decide to divert the aircraft to the new task they will inform the aircrew (who are the only ones who can see the fuel gauges) and get told “we’ve been on task here for an hour and a half and will need fuel before going anywhere else, can you get the other aircraft to go?” Maybe should have asked the people that know first.
“This is a police-driven decision. They wanted a national air service because they knew they could provide a better service with this type of structure than the previous fragmented structure we had.”
This is a money based decision, pure and simple. If they had wanted a more efficient and cheaper police-driven model I could have given them one and it wouldn’t have involved an NPIA team working for three years to deliver this model.
The trouble is they will fail on both counts. Police air support will be worse and they wont save money. Already NPAS are having to employ people that weren’t previously part of an air support budget, we never had our own comms staff (except the Met), never needed them, now we have a comms room and operators as an air support cost. We have a Flight Operations Director, ex pilot, earns a very large wage now. NPAS recently advertised two new posts, a procurement officer and something else we never had before at £40,000 each. There is a Chief Super and a Super involved at West Yorks and there will be other posts creeping in as they find they are needed. Pretty soon the potential savings will be gone.
Does air support matter? Lots of cops say they can’t get it when they want it, that’s because it’s in demand elsewhere because it is effective. This week I saw about 8 response officers struggling and failing to find a house burglar who had run off into gardens, we can’t afford to have this many staff tied up, we don’t have enough cops anymore. We turned up and found the burglar hiding in bushes, he got arrested and everyone else got on with other jobs. I also arrived over a scene following a pursuit in a rural area where a number of officers where staring into the blackness of open fields where their offenders had run to. They were awaiting one of the scarce dog patrols to arrive. We found the suspects ¼ mile from the scene hiding in a ditch and talked the dog handler to them with other officers. We pinpointed the suspects so they didn’t have to search for them, lit the area with a searchlight so the officers could go safely and made sure there were no unpleasant surprises like getting ambushed in the dark. 2 arrested and everyone gets to go do other things. This is run of the mill every day stuff but think back to the London riots or the student demos. How many of the worst offenders at the student demos where caught as a result of footage from the helicopters analysed after the event to see who was chucking concrete blocks etc? Air support has its place, it’s a valuable asset and I fear it is about to be reduced in effectiveness.
I know for a fact that during my time on air support I have taken action that has saved lives. These are not the sort of “lives saved” by speeding campaigns etc that the police talk about i.e. notional lives in notional accidents that might have happened, these are real lives, people whose names I can tell you, people who were in the process of dying who we saved (even if some of them didn’t want saving)
PC’s in air support today all suspect that NPAS is a pre-cursor to civilianising the service. Gathering everything together in one unit makes it easier to put out for tender later so that one of the big private companies can take over. The experienced officers who do such a good job will be replaced by civilian operators to save money.
Our old friend Tom Windsor has recommended that Police Tactical Flight Officer is not on the list of “specialist roles” under his reforms and therefore won’t be eligible for the top rate of pay for constable after 2016.(Seriously Tom Is there a more specialist role in the police?) This means that if police officers choose to stay in air support roles after 2016 they will have their wages cut by £5000 a year. Clearly this will be unaffordable for most and they will leave the service and return to other forms of policing. No new police officers are going to apply for a role in air support and take a £5000 pay cut as an incentive so the only option will be to recruit civilian staff – job done by 2017