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State Patrol hangar in Gainesville saves lives with quicker response times

POSTED: January 10, 2014 11:18 p.m.

The newly renovated hangar at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville has enough warehouse space for a helicopter and a small fixed-wing aircraft. The unit moved to Gainesville from Athens last year for a more central location in its coverage area.

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Sometimes a few minutes is all it takes to save a life.

In the year since moving into its new hangar at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville, pilots with the Georgia State Patrol’s aviation division estimate they have helped save the lives of more than 15 people in the Northeast Georgia area.

The hangar serves as the location for the state patrol’s emergency helicopter unit. The unit relocated from Athens to Gainesville in January 2012.

Sgt. Kevin Thompson, the hangar commander and one of two pilots in the unit, said the move provided a more convenient, centralized location and essentially “cut response times in half.”

It takes approximately six minutes for the unit to take off after receiving a call from area law enforcement.

Thompson said he can fly to the southernmost point of the 23-county region, Ogelthorpe County, in around 30 minutes. He can reach the North Carolina or Tennessee state line in 45 minutes.

Thompson said the unit primarily receives calls to assist law enforcement officers as they search for missing people or fugitives.

The Bell 407 helicopter is equipped with a Forward Looking Infrared Camera which allows Tactical Flight Officer Stephen Mickels, who mans the post via a partnership with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, to pinpoint the location of people by looking for heat signatures.

Mickels said by using the FLIR camera he can locate individuals from a mile or two away and zoom in on specific locations to help officers on the ground apprehend or rescue people.

Many of the calls are for patients with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. The unit recently searched a wooded area for a 13-year-old autistic girl on a 13-degree day.

The helicopter also can assist with firefighting efforts with the help of an attachable 210-gallon water tank. The tank can be used to douse wild fires or structure fires.

“That’s the majority of our business is searching and trying to help ground units with whatever they have going on,” Thompson said.

The hangar houses 1,700 square feet of office and living space as well as enough room to hold two helicopters in its warehouse. The office and living space was renovated by the city of Gainesville for about $135,000, which will be repaid through rental payments on a five-year lease.

The hangar also houses a Cessna 182, a small airplane, which the unit uses to travel to meetings and to fly in additional pilots from other posts around the state.

Thompson said the airplane is much more cost-effective for traveling. Averaging in maintenance costs, Thompson said an hour in the plane costs $80 to $100 an hour, where the helicopter costs about $500.

Because the helicopter is more expensive, the unit typically does not take more proactive measures like monitoring traffic unless called to do so by the GSP.

“It’s got a great return on investment,” Mickels said. “It’s saved a lot of people’s lives.”


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