The small Northern suburb of Winthrop Harbor has used the Law Enforcement Support Office program a little differently than most — to create an air support system that has flown hundreds of helicopter rescue missions from Milwaukee to New Orleans.
Winthrop Harbor has gotten nearly $8 million worth of surplus military equipment, including eight helicopters and the equipment to keep them running. It may seem excessive for a town of fewer than 7,000 people, but Police Chief Joel Brumlik said the unit they’ve built has filled an urgent need in the region.
It started after Sept. 11, when a Chicago businessman offered Winthrop Harbor the use of his helicopter for local emergencies.
But when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, Mundelein-based Medline Industries asked for help evacuating 1,500 patients from Tulane Hospital in New Orleans, which had lost power.
A pilot and Winthrop Harbor police officers flew south and joined a team of larger military helicopters. Together they evacuated the entire hospital in 20 hours, Brumlik said.
“That brought a lot more attention to this little volunteer air unit,” he said.
In the years since, Air-One, the 501(c)3 nonprofit that runs Winthrop Harbor’s air support program, has acquired several helicopters of its own through the federal program and no longer uses the private one.
“We continued the mission of trying to create an air support system for local municipalities,” Brumlik said.
The four helicopters that are now being used — the other four are not flying and are being used for parts — are stored at Waukegan, Rockford and Freeport airports in donated hangar space. They include refurbished Vietnam-era Hueys such as the Bell UH-1V and the Bell HH-1N, as well as a smaller Bell OH-58C Kiowa.
Because only law enforcement agencies can request equipment through the federal program, Winthrop Harbor does the federal paperwork and then passes everything on to Air-One, which is run by a board of directors, led by Brumlik as its president.
Air-One helicopters help departments as far west as Rockford, north into Milwaukee and south into Chicago when necessary.
About a dozen pilots volunteer their time to Air-One. Some of them are of part-time police officers; others are commercial airline pilots or retired military airmen.
The program, because it is volunteer, doesn’t run around the clock. Brumlik said Air-One responds to eight to 10 calls a week through mutual aid agreements with dozens of municipal police departments, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Illinois Department of Transportation and local offices of Homeland Security.
In the past few weeks, volunteers helped track a homicide suspect who was running from police in Belvidere, conducted a search-and-rescue in a Cook County Forest Preserve and assisted the Coast Guard on a rescue mission in Lake Michigan.
“A lot of our focus is training for a disaster situation where we would need to move equipment or personnel into an area where roads may not be an option,” he said.
Police in Ferguson, Missouri, asked for Air-One’s help when street protests started boiling over a few months ago, but Brumlik said the unit turned it down due to time and money constraints.
“It was just not affordable for us, and there wasn’t a need for it — they had plenty of support,” he said.
Brumlik said Air-One is an example of how the federal program can help save taxpayers money and bring services to people.
“The idea is to work together with all these entities so it’s cost effective, and we aren’t duplicating services,” he said. “Everyone is on a limited budget.”
Winthrop Harbor, has not had to use any taxpayer money to support Air-One, Brumlik said.
“It’s been a great program,” Brumlik said. “It’s putting into use equipment that is being recycled but not in a military way, and saving the taxpayers money.”