By Molly Priddy, 12-17-11
||Caption: Emergency aviation can be used to help warn motorists during high-speed chases. - Photo courtesy Flathead County Sheriff's Office
Several years ago, a child went missing in Columbia Falls. Jordan White, now Flathead County’s undersheriff, remembers his phone conversation with the missing boy’s mother as a pivotal point early in his career.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you have a helicopter out looking for my child?’” White said.
It was one of the first times he had to tell a distressed parent that due to funding, a helicopter can only be sent out as a last resort.
“And she said, ‘At what point do we reach a last resort?’” White said. “That was an extremely moving experience for me.”
Crews eventually found the child, but White had that phone call in mind when he helped establish Flathead Emergency Aviation Resources (FEAR), a nonprofit aviation program to complement the sheriff’s office and existing search and rescue efforts in the Flathead Valley and surrounding areas.
Currently, search and rescue groups deploy about 52 times a year, White said, and helicopters are called to help five or 10 times a year.
The new organization’s goal is to raise $500,000 to buy its own helicopter and pay for annual expenses, which would run about $100,000 a year, White said. Until then, FEAR members will fly personal or leased aircraft.
In this economic climate, White said he knew it would be nearly impossible for the sheriff’s office to start up a new aviation program, so he pursued the nonprofit route.
The group provides assistance in many ways, White said, including conducting searches; flying emergency dive teams to their locations; transporting mountain rescue personnel and their equipment; providing overhead support for tactical teams in high-risk operations; body recoveries and more.
FEAR founding supporters include pilot Jim Pierce of Red Eagle Aviation, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, Wendy Stefaniak and Jay Johnson. The nonprofit’s board, of which White is a member, controls the organization when it is not part of a mission.
In searches, having air support can make a significant difference in how much ground is covered in a shorter amount of time, White said. It can also spur the lost individual to start flagging down the plane or helicopter and lets them know that someone is looking for them.
As far as cost is concerned, White said a helicopter or plane would actually be cheaper than manpower during a search. He said a ground crew of 10 searchers would take nine hours to make their way through a square mile area using a 30-foot search width.
This would cost roughly $3,600 in personnel payment, he said, whereas a helicopter could cover the same distance in half an hour with three spotters, resulting in $250 in operating costs and up to $60 in personnel pay.
Starting a nonprofit for such a venture means the public knows that these costs won’t be coming out of their pockets, White said. He said he has heard for years that “we need to do more with less” where tax dollars are concerned.
With a nonprofit, you can do more with a different funding source, he said, and he does not want to take dollars out of search and rescue groups’ budgets.
A formal organization also offers stability to other counties and search and rescue crews that need aviation assistance because these entities will know that FEAR is trained and prepared, White said. It also means the sheriff can call on the nonprofit for help, he added.
White said FEAR hopes to round up long-term investors so the nonprofit can focus on its mission rather than constant fundraising. There are some aviation grants out there, he said, but not many.
By starting the nonprofit, White said search and rescue crews are a step closer to being able to say there will be eyes in the sky looking when someone calls to report a lost or missing person, he said.
“I’ll be happy when aviation is a first resort because it does provide the quickest, surest means of getting help to somebody,” White said.
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