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Police aviation units: 11 things to address in your emergency response plan

What happens if a law enforcement aircraft is in trouble?


A Los Angeles Police helicopter flies above a home during a standoff in the upscale neighborhood in Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017.

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

This article is taken from the July/August 2017 issue of eTechBeat, published by the Justice Technology Information Center, a component of the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center System, a program of the National Institute of Justice, (800) 248-2742.

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Law enforcement aviation units with manned fixed-wing planes and helicopters can perform a variety of support tasks such as criminal search, crime scene photography, pursuits, emergency medical service transport, deployment and extraction of SWAT, and search and rescue.

But what happens if a law enforcement aircraft is in trouble? Because of the specialized nature of the unit, the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA) emphasizes how important it is for agencies to have an aviation emergency response plan (ERP) in place. An ERP can provide guidance to agency members with no aviation background who are responding to a law enforcement aircraft in distress, as well as help an agency plan for responding to any aviation crash or disaster.

“An aviation emergency response plan is something an agency may not think it needs because law enforcement agencies are organized to respond to emergencies, and so think they would figure it out as always,” says Bryan Smith, safety program manager for ALEA. “But I have found in talking to agencies that have had an aircraft incident that the existence of an ERP that is aviation specific makes all the difference. Often, the people who know how to look for an aircraft are the people in the aircraft. It is a complicated process knowing if the aircraft is in distress and then what to do.”

ALEA compiled a checklist of items agencies should address in an aviation ERP:

1. Simple, clear ‘triggers’ to initiate ERP.

Number of minutes overdue, Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) activation, notification from crew, etc. Usually initiated by a dispatcher or communications center.

2. Means of locating aircraft.

Access to flight tracking, Air Traffic Control (ATC) contact info, etc. How will you find a missing aircraft?

3. Investigation responsibilities.

Who will investigate if federal authorities do not? Who is trained for it? Do you have an incident investigation kit?

4. Instructions on searching for missing aircraft.

Who will search for the aircraft right after it goes down or goes missing? Do they know how to conduct a missing aircraft search? Include numbers for agencies who can assist.

5. Instructions for securing an aircraft accident scene.

Setting inner and outer perimeters. Who has access to the aircraft? Hazardous materials and scene security concerns.

6. Complete contact list.

All aviation unit members, federal or state investigation authorities, air traffic control, fire/emergency medical services, surrounding aviation units, etc.

7. Family contact info.

An aircraft accident will be big news. Get to the family before the news does. Do not forget about kids. Have extended family/friend contact info available to help assist the crewmembers’ families.

8. Aircraft recovery plan.

How will you recover it from a wooded area, swamp or water? Have options and phone numbers in place.

9. Media instructions.

When can you talk to the media? What can you say? What should the public affairs officer say?

10. Post-incident plan.

Will you cease operations for a period of time? Who will cover during that period? What critical incident mental health resources are available?

11. Checklists.

Have 1-2 page checklists for everyone with tasks to complete in your ERP. Include phone numbers and critical information on the list. Examples include: Communications Center, Patrol/Watch Commander or Supervisor, Unit Commander, Safety Officer, Director of Maintenance, etc.

Checklist printed with permission from ALEA.

To see the checklist online, access the ALEA Safety Wire April 2017 newsletter here.

For a sample detailed law enforcement aviation ERP, visit this page.

For information on the ALEA Safety First Program, email Bryan Smith, ALEA safety program manager, at

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