Airborne law enforcement in Washoe County

Martin Scharenborg and Ramon Wenink visited Washoe County in Nevada to hear about the crucial role the Airborne Law Enforcement Unit plays in the work of the Sheriff’s Office

With almost 17,000km² to cover, the Washoe County’s Sheriff’s Office relies heavily on its Airborne Law Enforcement Unit – RAVEN
All images Martin Scharenborg and Ramon Wenink

Covering close to 17,000km² that includes the Sierra Nevada and Lake Tahoe, Washoe County is also home to the second largest city in Nevada – Reno. Known not just for its casinos but also for the renowned Reno Air Races, the city draws thousands of tourists to the county every year. Tasked with caring for this mixture of city and wild terrain, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office relies heavily on its Airborne Law Enforcement Unit – RAVEN.

RAVEN (Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit) was established in 1996 when funding became available to set up a dedicated unit to conduct airborne law enforcement, firefighting and search and rescue (SAR). Registered in January 1997, the unit’s first helicopters were two former United States Army Bell OH-58A+ Kiowas, registered N1911 (RAVEN 1) and N1032F (RAVEN 2). Subsequent additions included Bell UH-1Hs and HH-1Hs, two of which are still serving with the unit: N911NV (RAVEN 3) and N91JK (RAVEN 7).

“The helicopters are on loan from the Military LESO programme (Law Enforcement Support Office). Referred to as the 1033 programme (formerly the 1208 programme), it allows the US Secretary of Defense to transfer surplus Department of Defense (DoD) material to national law enforcement agencies for the fight against crime and to ensure public safety. We have to maintain these aircraft to military standards and we also keep them up with civilian standards in case they have to be returned to the military when phased out of service,” said Deputy Joseph “Seppl” Baumann, chief pilot of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit.

Baumann started his flying career in the United States Army National Guard 37 years ago and accumulated over 5,000 flying hours on the Bell UH-1 Huey, Bell OH-58 Kiowa, Boeing CH-47D/F Chinook and Sikorsy CH-54 Tarhe/S-64 Skycrane. He volunteered with the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit, while still flying with the Army National Guard, in 1998. In July 2021 he retired from the United States Army National Guard and became fulltime chief pilot of RAVEN.

Airborne law enforcement is also key in Reno, which helps attract thousands of tourists to Washoe County every year

In addition to Baumann, RAVEN has three part-time pilots, one full-time mechanic and two part-time mechanics. Based at Reno Stead Airport, the unit also has a full-time chief tactical flight officer and five part-time tactical flight officers.

Old but reliable

RAVEN currently operates two OH-58A+ Kiowa helicopters that previously flew with the US Army, the lighter of which, OH-58A+, is used for patrol flights. The aircraft use two different infrared camera (FLIR) systems. N1911 uses the older FLIR ULTRA 8500, while N1032F is equipped with the more modern TrakkaCam TC300. In terms of searchlights, one Kiowa is still using the older Spectrolab SX-16 Nightsun, while the other is equipped with the Trakka Systems TrakkaBeam A800.

WCSO (Washoe County’s Sheriff’s Office) is ‘dedicated to preserving a safe and secure community with professionalism, respect, integrity and the highest commitment to equality’, its mission statement says

“At the moment a second set is too expensive, costing around $350, but as the TC300 FLIR system is 15 years newer than the old one, we are going to renew the wiring to enable us to switch the ball between the two Kiowa aircraft”, explained Baumann.

Since 1997 the cockpit layout of both aircraft has been substantially modified and fitted with compatible lighting for night vision goggles (NVG) operations – the crews fly with ANVIS AN/AVS-9 F4949 Generation III NVGs with green phosphorus lighting. The aircraft are fitted with an encrypted broadcast microwave systems (BMS) video and a data-link system that provides the dispatch centre, the mobile emergency operations centre (MEOC) and units on the ground with a real-time view from the air. A Churchill Navigation augmented reality system (ARS) was also added but following the installation of the TrakkaCam TC300 in N1932F in 2018, the TrakkaMaps TM-100 augmented reality system was adopted.

The versatile Huey

RAVEN currently operates two Bell HH-1H Huey helicopters, one of which, RAVEN 3, has served since 1998. It is one of only 30 HH-1H aircraft built for the USAF to serve in the combat search and rescue (CSAR) role. RAVEN 7 (N91JK) joined the unit in 2016, having served previously with the USAF Army and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. RAVEN 3 is equipped with a bellymounted water tank that can carry 326 gallons of water and 27 gallons of foam.

Both aircraft were originally fitted with an external roof-mounted hoist, but this was replaced by a removable electric internal Goodrich hoist, capable of lifting 600lb and with 250ft of useable cable, ideal for search and rescue operations, especially in the high and rough Sierras. “We do not carry out Medevac missions unless it is an absolute emergency where the lead medical officer on the scene might say “Just grab him and go!”. Our standard protocol is to hand over the patient to the ambulance so they can start treating him right away. Most of the time they are not that far away. If an aerial medical evacuation is needed, Careflight, an extension of REMSA (Regional Emergency Medical Services Authority), can take the patient to the nearest hospital by helicopter,” Baumann explained.

The Huey helicopters are also used to transport special units to a specific scene, for instance SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics), K9 (canine/police dogs), and the Hasty Team (see below). “SWAT will always have a TEMS team (tactical emergency services) on board. They are paramedics and doctors who work and train with the SWAT team, which in turn works with us. They are hoist qualified. We can hoist people up in a screamer suit or a Bauman Bag to contain and wrap up the detainee. We also train with the regular basket and the jungle penetrator,” he added.

Founded in 1971, the Hasty Team is a group of unpaid professionals that specialises in high- and low-angle rope rescue operations, mine rescues, swift water rescues, dive rescue and recovery, and the operation of underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

“They do deep underwater searches and recently they did the deepest underwater search in Lake Tahoe, to over 1,500ft deep. They are more a technical type of rescue team. We use eight members of the team as hoist specialists and for medical rescues. We also have ten paramedics in our Hasty Team provided by REMSA. Basically, when we have a callout for a rescue, we always have a paramedic on board. It is a huge benefit,” said Baumann.

A broad mission

In addition to law enforcement, firefighting and SAR, RAVEN performs in static displays, and assists in VIP transport, Department of Homeland Security missions, and counter drug operations. The unit also transports the county’s HOPE (Homeless Outreach Proactive Engagement) team, seeking out homeless ‘camps’ so that outreach can be arranged.

“RAVEN is very important to Washoe and the surrounding counties,” said Baumann. “We are the only airborne division in Northern Nevada and California. Any county that is attached to Washoe County as a friend or a neighbour can make a direct request for service or missions.”

Teamwork is essential to RAVEN operations, stresses chief pilot Joseph Baumann
Founded in 1971, the unpaid Hasty Team members are specialists in mine rescues, swift water rescues, dive rescue and recovery, among other things
Both RAVEN 3 and RAVEN 7 have removable electric internal Goodrich hoists, making them ideal for SAR operations
Washoe County includes Lake Tahoe, the largest alpine lake in North America

Where there is no friend or neighbour connection, the request goes through the States Office of Emergency Management.

When a call comes in

Calls for assistance reach RAVEN via dispatch centres or another Sheriff’s office, Baumann explained.

“We look at what type of call it is, what resources we have and need, then decide what personnel will go. If the Sheriff’s office approves the mission, we fire up our incident management team and follow SAR protocol.

“We build a map with the help of [online mapping platform] CalTopo. It is like a search programme; we can use any of the maps on it, and they can mark the maps. They can track not only the SAR helicopter personnel, but also search and rescue teams on the ground, so you can easily see the areas that you have covered. Our incident management team can update the platform with points last seen, any items that were found, for instance.

“Weather is crucial as winds can be very treacherous on this side of the mountains, but visibility is also very important. We use anything at our disposal, such as road cams, ski-hill cameras, and the weather service. Ultimately, the decision to fly or not to fly is up to the pilot.

“Sometimes we have a mission to a very remote site. In cases like that we arrange for our fuel truck to meet us somewhere in the middle. Sometimes it isn’t even necessary to send a helicopter up and we send our SVU (specialized vehicle unit) instead. You always have to have a Plan B. There is a lot going on in the background to make everything work,” Sgt Joshua Fisher, dispatch and liaison officer for RAVEN at Reno Stead Airport, told us.

Future challenges

Asked about RAVEN’s future, Baumann said: “Our biggest weakness is that we have older helicopters and we are getting lower on parts. But they are still very capable. We still have the power to climb up Mount Rose, for example, which is over 9,000ft. We can sit up there and hover. Some aircraft can’t do that.

“Our Hueys are modified to the Huey II standard, with the AH-1 Cobra engine, T12 transmission, and BLR Aerospace’s FastFin system. With Raven 3 we have the composite rotor blades which give us another hot and high power to operate at higher altitudes during hot weather conditions. It also has the global rotor compensator. Another change is a new tail-rotor kit that moves the rotor from the left side to the right, making it a tractor-, or puller-, style rather than a pusher-style anti-torque system. It gives more power and pull. For the size and the ability, what it can do it is sometimes better than some of the newer helicopters.”

RAVEN aircraft do not have auto-flight systems such as auto-hover. RAVEN 7 still has the metal-made main-rotor blades with a Bell 212 tail rotor-blade, while RAVEN 3 has a Bell 204 rotor-blade with a global compensator.

“We have more tail rotor authority on Raven 3 than we do with the 212 rotorblades, although both Hueys have almost the same tail-rotor authority. I have never lost tail-rotor authority when we have been up, even working on higher altitudes, so they both do a good job,” Baumann told AIR International.

RAVEN may have just two helicopters but as far as Baumann is concerned, they are the right types for the job. He says he would choose the HH-1H over many newer helicopters, not least because of its cost efficiency in terms of flying hours.

Cost control is key to the unit. Baumann’s colleague Fisher explains some of the lengths the team goes to, to keep its aircraft flying: “We have some written-off airframes here used for spare parts. We also do some ‘horse trading’: we work with other agencies, even regionally, to swap parts for things that we have a lot of and that they need, and vice versa.”

Teamwork is everything

The terrain and weather conditions that characterise Washoe County make RAVEN’s missions all the more complex. Baumann recalls one especially challenging incident: “In the beginning of 2021 we had to search for a guy and we used the OH-58A+. We tried to find him with people on the ground [to look for him], but it turned into a rescue mission. At one stage the rescue teams couldn’t get out because the snowdrifts were so bad. People were stuck. We had tracked vehicles but even they couldn’t get to the location. So I had to get to Carson City Airport, switch helicopters, switch roles, get into the Huey, fly down there to hoist him out and then fly him back for medical attention.

“At lunchtime another call came – asnowboarder was stranded. Because of the low clouds he went out of bounds as he missed the turn and came down at the bottom of a gulley. Trying to get in there was very challenging. The winds were not that bad, but it was turbulent and he was hidden by the clouds.

“I tried for a long time to get in, but I had to come down, sit down and take a break and then go back up again. The snowboarder went down on the east side of Mount Rose but the way to get to him was going to the south up around the mountain, then coming down from the north west to reach him. We sent down two of our Hasty Team skiers and later we picked them up with their equipment. The snow, the avalanche danger and the low visibility that day were pretty challenging.”

In the end, however, Baumann is at odds to point out that no one person is more important than the other as RAVEN members must work as a team. “Most of the time we are operating with one pilot and one TFO [tactical flying officer]. Basically I am the ‘Uber-driver’ who gets them into position wherever they want to go. I am talking to other aircraft in the air and with air traffic control, while the TFO is talking to the tactical units on the ground. We can listen to six different radio frequencies at one time. We have a lot going on. If I didn’t have a TFO, I couldn’t carry out the mission. Similarly, if we didn’t have the Hasty Team, we wouldn’t have enough personnel to undertake the rescue,” he told AIR International.

Busy workload

RAVEN has proven to be invaluable to Washoe County, responding annually to approximately 1,000 calls, 75% of which are SAR missions and 25% patrol/ law enforcement. As the only aerial lawenforcement unit in Northern Nevada, the unit also acts as a deterrent. Moreover, in 2021 RAVEN 3 dropped 29,078 gallons of water in the fight against wildfires. “We are quite busy for a relatively small unit”, concluded Sgt Fisher.

in addition to law enforcement, firefighting and SAR, RAVEN performs in static displays, and assists in VIP transports