Please save our eyes in the sky

Police helicopter

Police helicopter

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A campaign has begun to save the Fylde coast – and Lancashire’s only – police helicopter base after it was announced it would close in 12 months’ time.

That means the area will be covered by helicopters already charged with covering the Greater Manchester and Cheshire patches.

Concerns have been raised over response times and the fact Blackpool and the Fylde coast will be vying with big cities like Liverpool and Manchester for the services of the police’s eye in the sky.

Dave Blacker, chairman of the Talbot Police and Communities Together forum, said: “The helicopter isn’t just there to catch criminals.

“It plays a huge role in helping look for missing children and vulnerable adults.”

The aerial unit this weekend helped fire crews tackling a raging inferno in Fleetwood, find a missing 10-year-old from Poulton, and with a traffic pursuit.

The county will retain cover, provided by choppers based in Greater Manchester and Cheshire.

But there are concerns over response times and the fact Blackpool and the Fylde coast will be vying with big cities like Liverpool and Manchester for the services of the police’s eye in the sky.

A campaign has already begun to save the Warton base – with more than 100,000 people having shared a social media post about the closure.

The Warton-based helicopter’s value to the Fylde coast was demonstrated this weekend when crews were scrambled to a number of high-profile incidents.

The chopper was in the air for several hours on Saturday assisting Lancashire Fire and Rescue service and local officers at a blaze in Fleetwood.

And the aerial unit was also called into action on Sunday when a 10-year-old girl was reported missing in Poulton.

Suggestions were made on social media the base could shut in August this year.

But NPAS insists that date is incorrect and the risks to communities were taken into account as part of its national review of operations.

A spokesman said: “The closure of NPAS Warton in April 2017 is part of a national programme of planned activity to ensure essential air support remains in place to support the police forces of England and Wales at a significantly-reduced cost to the public.

“The decision to close NPAS Warton was made based on an impact assessment of the ability of the National Police Air Service to provide air support to police forces in line with areas of the greatest threat, harm and risk to the public.”

It’s understood staff will be redeployed to other aerial units.

The decision has been criticised by both police officers and the general public, with the safety of communities paramount in their thoughts.

Mr Blacker said: “I’m very disappointed. The helicopter isn’t just there to catch criminals and things like that.

“It plays a huge role in helping look for missing children and vulnerable adults.

“That is a very important function. It is the eye in the sky for the police on the ground and a service the county needs.”

Mr Blacker fears having the nearest chopper based at Barton in Manchester could make a big difference.

“Every second counts when you’re talking about something like a missing child.

“That extra minute could make the difference.

“I think there could be an increased risk to people living in our communities.”

And Mr Blacker fears Lancashire could be left the poor relation should rescources be needed in Liverpool or Manchester at the same time.

“It is a concern,” he said. “It is clear this is going to be more beneficial for Manchester than it is for us.”

The Police Federation, which represents serving officers, echoed Mr Blacker’s fears.

Rachel Baines, who represents officers in Lancashire said: “For us it has been a concern since the announcement that the National Police Air Service was looking at closing Warton.

“We feel the north of the county will be badly affected.

“We will see a reduction in the availability of service which has been available to officers.

“The helicopter is used in a wide range of cases from persons missing from home to pursuits. It is the eye in the sky and it is a vital tool for officers on the ground.

“With tools like the heat seeking cameras it can see things officers on the ground never could.

“Anything which reduces the resources available to officers is a concern to us.”

The current base at Warton will remain open until April 2017 but the impact on the Fylde coast may be felt before that date, with NPAS planning to begin the transfer of services to other bases over the next 12 months.

But the police chopper operator insists there will not be any detrimental impact.

An NPAS spokesman said: “While NPAS Warton will remain open until April 2017, it is possible some of the services they currently provide will be delivered by other local NPAS bases sooner than that in order to most effectively manage the closure process.

“Alongside this closure, more NPAS bases are operating 24 hours. NPAS Barton and NPAS Hawarden along with others across the rest of England and Wales already provide a service 24/7.

“The National Police Air Service (NPAS) is a unique national collaboration across England and Wales providing a truly borderless service.

“Police forces in need of air support contact the NPAS Operations Centre and receive support from the nearest available aircraft at the time.

“NPAS currently provides this support from 17 bases across England and Wales. Through this network, NPAS are normally able to reach 98 per cent of the population of England and Wales within 20 minutes.

“By April 2017, NPAS will be operating from 15 24/7 bases across England and Wales and with this provision, will continue to protect local communities from threat, harm and risk as effectively and in line with local police and crime plans.“

NPAS Warton was asked to assist with a traffic pursuit on Sunday evening.

On April 7, the helicopter was used in the search for a nine-year-old girl reported missing in Lancashire and on April 1 the chopper was called to assist Blackpool Police in seperate hunts for a missing person and criminal suspects.

Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner office said it will continue to work with NPAS to best servce the county folowing the closure.

Angela Harrison, director at the Office of the Police and Crime Commissioner for Lancashire, said: “We are aware of the recent social media posts suggesting staff have been informed of a closing date of the base at Warton. However, we have received assurances that NPAS Warton will remain open until April 2017, as previously stated.

“We will be asking NPAS to keep us updated as and when any further decisions over the closure process are taken. Any decision over the future of the NPAS Warton helicopter base is made by the National Strategic Board and not the Lancashire PCC.”

Cumbria’s aerial support is provided from Northumberland meaning the Warton closure will effectively leave an area stretching from the Scottish border to Cheshire without a based chopper.