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Columbus PD Has First MetaMap GPS Program for Helicopters

The Columbus (Ohio) PD has given new meaning to the concept of the “eye in the sky.” The department’s Helicopter Section can see quite a bit about local citizens, including whether they have a swimming pool and how many properties they own. The information isn’t used to keep tabs on anyone; rather, it’s part of a unique computer program that allows chopper pilots to respond to police calls swiftly and accurately.The helicopter pilots use the portable FliteVue PC (personal computer) to display GPS (global positioning software) integrated with the Franklin County auditor’s information on CD-ROM. The data that the county compiles includes homeowners’ and property taxpayers’ names, street and intersection configurations, building shapes, the location of fire hydrants, parking lots, driveways, telephone poles, swimming pools, sheds and barns. This information can be called up on the computer’s MetaVue software program in a variety of mapping configurations, depending on what kind of incidents the whirlybirds are called to.Earlier this month, for example, the dispatcher sent out a call for service to a house alarm. “In the ‘follow’ mode, the MetaVue program shows us where the house is and what street the helicopter is currently flying over,” explains P.O. Matt Montoney, one of the Helicopter Section’s pilots. “It also allows us to pace a speeder on the freeway, which we do if someone’s really hauling. We just clocked a guy at 92 mph,” he adds.The Columbus police pilots are thrilled with MetaVue’s capabilities, not only because they are the first in the country to have this program, but also because it takes the guesswork out of incident response. Before the department had access to the program, pilots had to “just know” the location of all the city’s streets and landmarks from the air—a learning curve that could take over a year. Now they can bring up the names and locations of individual churches and schools with the click of a button. The accurate shapes of each building and house are rendered from aerial photos that the city has and can be overlaid with the street addresses on the screen. Access to this information allows choppers to arrive at calls first and direct the officers driving the cruisers to the correct location.“We can tell them that the house where the burglar alarm went off is the third one from the corner on the left-hand side of the street so that the drivers don’t have to slow down to read the house numbers,” says Montoney. “Or we can shine the spotlight in the backyard and other areas surrounding the house to see whether someone is running away from the crime scene before the officers on the ground can even get there.”The Columbus PD has 1,800 officers, of whom 21 are assigned to the Helicopter Section. The six birds in the fleet fly 365 days a year, with at least one in the air at all times. Last year, the unit went on 24,000 runs. On over 9,000 of the calls, the chopper arrived first at the scene. “The average response time for our helicopter is 1.74 minutes, compared with just under 3 minutes for the cruisers,” boasts Sgt. Edward Daniher, one of the supervisors in the unit. “Our mapping computer is the key to that quick response time.” The unit also performs a number of public service functions, such as transporting blood, organs and medical equipment from one hospital to another. In addition, the helicopters come out in force to do dignitary escorts and fly-ins to schools and scout troops. “We also provide extra support on special occasions, such as the city’s 'Red, White and Boom' Fourth of July program,” Daniher adds. “We serve as the eyes and ears of the department.”The pilots are more than just observers, however. It was a quick thinking sergeant from the unit who conceived the idea of using the MetaMap program for the helicopter unit. He saw the program demonstration at a trade show and convinced Don Morgan, a programmer with the Lexington, Ky.-based manufacturer (www.metamapgis.com), to design software to run in conjunction with the county auditor’s CD-ROM. “The customer support that they’ve provided has been phenomenal,” says Montoney. “They’re constantly tweaking the program to get it the way we want it.”The pilots had to replace the first computer’s keyboard soon after its maiden voyage because the hardware took a beating as it was transferred from one helicopter to another. The replacement computer provided a larger screen, which was easier to see, but the mounting was problematic. “The vibrations from the helicopter caused the hard drive to crash,” Montoney reports. “The [computer] box itself was originally designed to be used on tractors in huge farming operations to keep track of which fields had been plowed and sprayed and so forth. Switching it back and forth between the birds also scratched up the screen.”The Columbus PD is planning to purchase additional units so that each helicopter is outfitted with a computer. And as long as nothing displaces the money in the city’s budget, a new chopper is slated to replace an older model in the fleet this year. The officers in this specialized section believe that spending the money is worthwhile.The helicopters save time—and sometimes, lives—especially when ground officers are involved in vehicular pursuits. “Once we’re overhead, the cruisers don’t have to go a million miles per hour,” Daniher stresses. “Cutting off a driver’s escape route from the air is like closing off a maze.”The helicopter unit’s quick response also saved the day for a suburban police department last year. Montoney was piloting one of the choppers when he picked up a transmission on the Law Enforcement Emergency Radio Network (LEERN) about a chase the officers in an adjoining jurisdiction were involved with. The cops on the ground were after a carjacker, who had used a butcher knife on the driver of a pick-up truck. The suspect stopped in a rural area and ran out of the truck into what looked from the road like a forest, Montoney reports.“It turns out that the tree line wasn’t more than 40 feet deep, with houses on the other side of it,” he says. “But the carjacker couldn’t tell that from the ground level. One of the officers spotted the guy going into the trees and shined his flashlight in, causing the guy to run out toward the K-9 officer.“Just our being in the air kept the carjacker from running out of the woods,” Montoney adds. The K-9 officer shot and killed the suspect.

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