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DPS helicopter flights up; budget falls flat

Birdseye view of helicopter rescue.jpg
Rescues in remote areas would take days for a ground crew to complete, law enforcement officials says. (KUTV)

The Utah Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau's flight numbers are increasing, with most calls coming from sheriff's department search and rescues. Despite the increase, the state legislature budget has roughly remained the same over the past five years.

Remote and Rugged, Utah's Terrain Is a First Response Nightmare

Utah's geography--its mountains, deserts, slot canyons--is its calling card. However, it complicates the state's response to major public safety incidents, such as search and rescues, police chases, and major automobile accidents.

To improve access, the Department of Public Safety Aero Bureau operates relies on two helicopters.

Through public records requests, the KUTV Investigative team pulled flight records from 2014 to 2019.

The KUTV Investigative Team also obtained the Aero Bureau's budget report from 2014 to May 2020.

Despite the increase in flight calls, the state legislature has not increased the Aero Bureau's budget.

Now the department is asking for an additional full-time pilot and to replace a now-grounded 1994 helicopter.

The 'Last Line of Help'

Utah-based skier Erme Catino and photographer Louis Arevalo were backcountry skiing at the Mapleton burn scar in February.

The expert skiers told 2News they were not doing anything extreme.

The snow was less than favorable; they decided to descend about 500 feet from the summit.

Catino skied down first while Arevalo shot photos.

Then, Arevalo clicked into his skis and started to descend.

I remember going into the next turn and thinking I am just going to do a little hip check, kind of a hockey stop to scrub the speed," Arevalo says.

This move propelled Arevalo forward, he says, causing him to somersault three times, gain speed, and hit a tree at full force.

Catino, who has medical training, rushed to Arevalo's aid and call for emergency assistance.

Life Flight was not able to land due to darkness.

When something catastrophic happens, who is that last line of help?" Catino points out.

As the night went on, Arevalo was hypothermic and going into spinal shock.

Catino continued coordinating with first responders, which allowed the DPS helicopter to hoist Arevalo off the mountain.

There’s no doubt about it," Arevalo says. "If they had not come that night, I wouldn’t have survived.

Law Enforcement Officials Say Without a Helicopter, People Would Die

State helicopter flights are on the rise: 392 last year up from 262 in 2018.

Just in like 2 or three years we’ve gone up like 52 percent,” Chief Pilot Luke Bowman explains.

Most calls are from sheriff's departments, which are requesting assistance with search and rescues.

Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins told 2News it could take a three-day hike to reach an injured party in the remote areas of his county.

I’m just flat telling you, bottom line: if we lose that helicopter for any reason, people are going to die down here," claims Garfield County Sheriff Danny Perkins.

The Aero Bureau told 2News that of last year's 140 search and rescues, 51 of them used a hoist.

The University of Utah's medical transport service, AirMed, cannot perform a hoist.

Life Flight, Intermountain Healthcare's air ambulance, can only execute a hoist during daylight hours.

The "Eye in the Sky"

After search and rescues, law enforcement calls are the second biggest reason the DPS helicopter gets called.

Most of those calls are on the Wasatch Front.

Law enforcement professionals told 2News the helicopter gives them a much-needed eye in the sky, allowing them to calling off police in pursuit and mitigating the need for chases.

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State Legislature Funding for Aero Bureau Stagnates

Though calls and flight hours are increasing, what's not is the amount the state legislature allocates.

As a result, the Aero Bureau is operating with antiquated equipment, such as a helicopter from 1994.

They're also spending sought-after funding and manpower on maintenance.

Because of the demand, we’re stacking calls up or we’re just turning them down because we don’t have a crew or an aircraft available for that," Bowman says.

There are currently only two full-time and two-part time DPS helicopter pilots, also members of Utah Highway Patrol.

How Does Utah Compare to Other Mountain States?

Neighboring mountain states Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho do not have state helicopters.

However, California has 8 different bases.

California Highway Patrol handles remote areas and state highways up and down the state.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department operates its own helicopter for the metro area.

Does Utah Need to Add Helicopter Bases to Increase Public Safety?

Law enforcement officials told the KUTV Investigative Team they would like to see at least one DPS helicopter base in southern Utah.

If you’ve got a helicopter based in Cedar City, for example, you’re thirty minutes from the deep, dark depths of Escalante National Monument," argues Perkins. "You can be there in a heartbeat.

If Utah were to add bases in the southwest corner of the state and in Grand County, one of the busiest search and rescue areas, it would cut down on flight time.

What's Next?

Right now, Utah Highway Patrol's Aero Bureau is just asking for a new helicopter to replace one that's been grounded.

They're also asking for another full-time pilot.

There’s no doubt there’s an added expense," Arevalo says. "But you have to think of your friends, your family, your loved ones. What’s the price of their life?

Producer's note: Randy Likness, Ben Pollchik, and Jeremy Harris contributed reporting to this story.