December 12, 2011 9:00 pm By Jesse Davis
FEAR is in the air.
In this case, FEAR is not a formless feeling of terror, but Flathead Emergency Aviation Resources, a new nonprofit organization designed to give wings to search-and-rescue efforts.
The organization’s goal is to save time, energy and money in aviation endeavors of law enforcement and search-and-rescue groups by providing easier, cheaper access to aircraft and pilots, according to one of the main organizers, Flathead County Undersheriff Jordan White.
The organization aims to be involved in avalanche response, train derailments, water rescues, tactical support, high-speed pursuits, body recoveries, first responder training and public education.
The need for a dedicated aerial component hit home for White when he was the search-and-rescue coordinator for the Sheriff’s Office, dealing with critical situations in remote areas.
“We identified very quickly that it took so long to get people into those areas to help,” White said. “We had injuries and even deaths because we couldn’t get to them for hours, sometimes even days.”
The advancing technology of snowmobiles is one factor.
“People were going beyond the normal limits,” White said.
White started working with federal customs agents in Great Falls and border patrol agents in Spokane, who had more aviation resources than the Sheriff’s Office. But when the weather was bad in the Flathead region, neither organization could get in over the mountains.
Next White forged a partnership with Kalispell Regional Medical Center’s ALERT helicopter.
But ALERT only has one helicopter, and its backup was a private pilot who volunteered his helicopter. But when he sold it, there was no longer any aircraft to take the ALERT helicopter’s place if it was out of service. It was also packed full of medical gear, making it difficult to carry many spotters or other equipment.
It was at that point that White began working with pilot Jim Bob Pierce of Red Eagle Aviation.
Pierce’s interest in helping came from his own experience of being in a life-threatening situation. He was caught in an avalanche that killed five people on Peters Ridge in the Swan Range in 1994.
In 2008, White also started training to become a pilot. He now has his fixed-wing license, owns two planes and is working on his helicopter rating.
“Right after that, over 2008 into 2009, we began to use [Pierce] much more in search-and-rescue response,” White said. “He convinced me first by getting us into the Spotted Bear Ranger District. Instead of taking six hours, we got out there and back in under an hour.”
The creation of a formal program took several years to coalesce into its current form.
“At first, we tried to do a program through the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office, which is the normal path,” White said. “But that was also when we were experiencing the initial signs of the economic crisis. We realized fairly quickly that wasn’t going to happen.”
White and other people decided the best option would be to form the group as a nonprofit separate from the Sheriff’s Office.
“That way, it would also be managed and run by an executive board that is not part of the Sheriff’s Office, so they would not be distracted by all of the other things going on,” White said. “They can put their experience into the program, raising and managing funds and resources.”
White also wants the organization to be funded outside the Sheriff’s Office so it does not require taxpayer money. The organization was approved as a 501(c)3 nonprofit Oct. 26.
“Our goal is to not charge the agencies; we don’t want to take money from search and rescue, and the last thing we want is to charge the people we’re helping,” White said.
Up to this point, the group’s money has come from Pierce, White and the rest of the executive board members. Since the organization has just been launched, no formal fundraising program is in place.
White said finding a few larger donors would be helpful.
“We’d love to find a philanthropist that would be willing to partner with the program and willing to provide any recurring or initial funding,” he said.
The projected annual operating costs are $100,000.
That covers $50,000 for 100 helicopter mission hours, $10,000 for 100 airplane mission hours and $40,000 for recurring training and public education costs.
The organization’s current needs include night vision equipment, flight suits and helmets, a nylon long line and funding for helicopter flight training and helicopter leasing costs.
The organization leases time from Pierce and Red Eagle Aviation for two helicopters there but also has a long-term goal of raising $500,000 to purchase a dedicated helicopter and $300,000 to purchase a thermal camera system.
The organization’s acronym, FEAR, is no coincidence. The name is based in the fear of the lost, missing and injured, the fear their families experience until they are found and the way fear works as a defense mechanism to keep people safe.
In addition to increasing the amount of air resources available for emergency operations, the organization is expected to lower the cost for such activities.
The approximate operating costs are $500 per hour for a helicopter or $100 per hour for an airplane.
White said similar operations in the past cost the Sheriff’s Office between $750 and $1,000 per hour. That means with an annual budget of only $10,000, such services could only be used about 10 times per year.
One of the biggest savings is expected to be in actual search costs.
A search of 1 square mile with a 30-foot sweep width using 10 searchers on the ground would take nine hours and rack up $3,600 in paid personnel costs.
Using a helicopter with a pilot and up to three spotters, 1 square mile can be searched with a sweep width of 250 feet in just 30 minutes Ñ costing just $250 for the helicopter and between $20 and $60 for personnel.
The organization eventually plans to expand its service outside Flathead County.
“Right now we’re looking at the Rocky Mountain Front down to the area north of Missoula, the Mission Valley, west to the Idaho border and north to the Canadian border,” White said. “Basically the whole northwest mountainous region of Montana over to the plains.”
This is not the first time such a program has been attempted.
Back in the 1990s, then-Sheriff Jim Dupont looked into something similar, but ran into the same funding problems as those that faced White when he considered running the organization through the Sheriff’s Office.
“We never could really manage it because of the cost factors, and there wasn’t really someone to take it on,” said Dupont, a pilot who is now a Flathead County commissioner.
There still were periodic attempts made, thanks to local pilots who volunteered their time and aircraft for the cost of the gas.
“But it didn’t go on very long,” Dupont said. “They always petered out and we didn’t use them that much, but the population was small at the time.”
He said he is excited by the possibilities opened up by the new organization, but also shared a hope for the future of search-and-rescue operations.
“I’d like to see it go into the remote-control service, too,” Dupont said. “They’re easy to operate. They have a limited use right now, but they are a coming factor.”
Current Sheriff Chuck Curry, who has a fixed-wing license and his own plane and used to be the chief flight paramedic for ALERT, also is encouraged by the potential of Flathead Emergency Aviation Resources.
“I think there is certainly a place in the search-and-rescue community and law enforcement community in the current day and age for aviation. It makes sense to have those resources available,” Curry said. “However, I also think it’s important to note that taxpayers certainly do
n’t want to pay for it.”
He went on to say that the format of the organization “makes good sense” because of its ability to raise money.
“I think, in today’s tight fiscal times, it’s important to come up with some out-of-the-box ways to provide services, and I think this is one of them,” Curry said. “Certainly, if they come up with a resource that’s available to us at little to no cost, we’d be foolish not to use it.”
He said he also would offer his aircraft and piloting abilities to the organization, but that he would be limited by the existing requirements of his job as sheriff.
For more information, visit the organization’s website at embracefear.com or contact the organization by mail at Flathead Emergency Aviation Resources, P.O. Box 2694, Kalispell, MT 59903 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.