The Kiwanis Club of Highland gathered on Tuesday, Nov. 26, to hear Capt. Robert O’Brine head of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Aviation unit in the Emergency Operations Division.
O’Brine has worked for the sheriff’s department for 25 years and has been the commander of the aforementioned emergency operations division unit for just over a year. The division is also the coordinator for the office of emergency services for the state of California, covering San Bernardino along with four other counties Imperial, Mono, Riverside and San Diego. He says if anything happens within those counties and they need assistance they contact his office.
According to O’Brine the aviation unit has a total of 17 aircraft.
He said the little helicopters you “see buzzing around” Highland are Airbus H125s. The department owns six of them that are all fairly new as the county provided money to purchase them three years ago with the last one being purchased two months ago. The cost of one helicopter with all the law enforcement technology costs about $6 million. O’Brine says the cameras on the helicopters can read a VIN number on someone’s car if it’s in the right position, the cameras can also pick up heat signatures which is a big help during fires and search operations.
O’Brine says the department owns three rescue helicopters, (two of them are UH1H a former military aircraft that have been upgraded by the sheriff’s department) as every sheriff’s department in the state has to conduct search and rescue duties. He says a volunteer force of 18,000 plus people assists the county. Five-hundred of those volunteers assist the sheriff’s mission of “looking for people who might be lost or need rescue.” O’Brine said the “easiest way to do that is by helicopter,” he says they use one of the smaller patrol helicopters to get an overall picture where a missing person might be. Last year alone there nearly 12,000 calls for service which equals up to about 47,000 hours of flight time, according to O’Brine.
I had a chance to participate in one of these search and rescue operations on Monday, Dec. 9, with sheriff’s aviation pilots Larry Scott and Paul Kowalski. They were searching for Irvine hiker Sreenivas "Sree" Mokkapati who has been missing since Sunday, Dec. 8, on Mt. Baldy.
O’Brine said every patrol helicopter has a rescue harness if they need to perform a rescue if the helicopter is unable to perform the rescue, one of the aforementioned rescue helicopters is then dispatched.
Among the fixed-wing aircraft, they have two King-Air airplanes (former military) to shuttle executives to and from destinations. They also have two brand new Australian built cargo planes along with a Grand Commander, an older transport plane.
Also, a topic of discussion was the 2013 case of Christopher Dorner, the former LAPD officer who went on a murder spree throughout southern California before killing himself in a standoff with law enforcement. O’Brine said they got involved on Feb. 12 when the standoff began in the cabin in Big Bear. O’Brine said once they “suspected his (Dorner) vehicle was in Big Bear,” the department “piloted a SWAT team on one of there Huey (UH1H) helicopters and flew them up to Big Bear,” along with a vehicle that drove the team's equipment up there. O’Brine said that Aviation did some searches, but, soon after, the Department of Homeland Security took over as they had aircraft that could stay in the air for longer periods. According to O’Brine, San Bernardino Sheriff’s Aviation is one of the only counties with officers trained to shoot out of their helicopters. He went on to say that the department “learned a lot of stuff on the Dorner incident from every aspect, from the way we investigate large scenes to the PIO (Public Information Officers) dealing with the nationwide media.”