TAMPA — They heard the pilot's distressed voice and rushed to help. But the two Tampa police officers on the Dec. 19 rescue mission weren't in a patrol car.
They were on patrol in a police helicopter when they saw the Cessna crash near Tampa International Airport. Pilot Dave Dennison landed the helicopter, and Brian Gentry used a fire extinguisher on the flames, pulled the pilot from the cockpit and helped save the man's life.
Years ago, a similar plane crash would have had a different emergency response: Someone would have made an emergency call to police dispatch. Fire trucks and police squad cars would have responded to the scene. The extra time might have resulted in a different ending for the pilot.
The helicopter, which Tampa police use for routine daily patrols, is just one of the response vehicles law enforcement agencies have available today that weren't in widespread use only a few year's ago. Police departments are no longer your father's agency where officers mostly drove a patrol or unmarked car or walked a beat.
These days, law enforcement agencies own and regularly use police boats, armored trucks, Humvees, all-terrain vehicles, bicycles and personal transportation devices like Segways.
The area's landscape, with its bay, rivers, swamps, rural locales and urban areas, calls for local police agencies to have a variety of transportation equipment to reach and assist the public, said Andrea Davis, a Tampa police spokeswoman.
“Without a variety of transportation options specific to emergency needs, it would put us at a drastic disadvantage in responding to calls for service,” Davis said. “Every second counts and lives can depend on those few extra seconds. It is critical that we have as many of the public safety tools as possible in our toolbox.”
Earlier this month, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office deputies needed advanced technological equipment to aid in a rescue at Little Manatee River State Park in Wimauma.
The sheriff's office received a call that a 16-year-old girl and a 17-year-old girl had become lost hiking on a trail and couldn't find their way back once it got dark.
The sheriff's office helicopter flew in the area of the state park. Using night vision goggles, the pilot spotted the light from one girl's cellphone, said sheriff's Col. James Previtera, who commands the sheriff's department of operational support.
Strobe lights visible with the night vision goggles were placed on two deputies searching at ground level. Using the night vision goggles, the helicopter pilot was able to guide the deputies to the girls.
“I don't know how long that would have taken us without the technology we have,” Previtera said.
Previtera remembers in the late 1980s, when the sheriff's SWAT team responded in a van to calls of a barricaded suspect.
To get close to the suspects, the deputies placed ballistic shields in the front windows as the SWAT driver approached the scene, Previtera said.
Today, SWAT teams respond in armored vehicles, he said.
Law enforcement officers across Tampa Bay still patrol heavily in squad cars or by foot. Now, though, they also are seen on specially equipped bicycles and even individual transporters like Segways. And for specialized situations such as patrolling waterfront areas, officers and deputies might use a police boat.
Specialized equipment helps fight crime, save lives and improve safety for officers and the community, Previtera said. Some of the items are paid through Homeland Security grants. Other items are funded through each agencys' budget, he said.
“I don't think there's an end for the development of technology for law enforcement,” Previtera said. “Each and every way they find makes the public safer. It makes our personnel safer.”