Policing COVID-19: Helicopter provides the ‘eyes in the sky’

From the cockpit of the police helicopter, officers get a clear picture of who is on the road and who isn’t. - Photo: RCIPS

In the space of a few short weeks, the coronavirus crisis has changed the entire scope of police work. With strict new rules to prevent the spread of the virus, almost any activity, beyond staying at home, can be a crime.

In the third installment of a three-part series looking at policing on land, air and sea, Steve Fitzgerald, head of the Air Operations Unit, talks to the Compass about how he and his fellow officers have responded to the emergency.

In the air: Helicopter crew watches over Cayman

From the cockpit of X-Ray One, Grand Cayman looks almost alive. Street lamps illuminate the empty highways as the lights of thousands of homes glimmer.

For the officers of the Royal Cayman Islands Aerial Support Unit, it is a surreal but welcome sight.

When the roads are deserted, save for the occasional flashing blue light, it makes their jobs easier.

“I would say 99% of people are compliant,” says Steve Fitzgerald, executive officer of the nine-person unit. 

“There is nobody out there, so when people do try to breach the curfew, we are onto it straight away.”

As the eye in the sky for the police, the aerial support unit has been pivotal in helping enforce the new laws, designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The view from the cockpit as the sun sets.

The new Airbus H145 helicopters are able to sweep the island in less than an hour. Aerial drones provide support in surveying the beaches.

Officers are in constant communication with marine and land patrols to direct colleagues in pursuit of curfew breakers or criminals who have yet to get the message that the island is closed for business.

Policing the curfew

Day to day, the helicopter crew keeps an eye on the beaches and the water to ensure the terms of the hard curfew are being followed.

Fitzgerald believes the majority of the public understands the reasons for the rules and buys into them, informing police when they suspect a violation.

“If someone goes swimming, we will know within 10 minutes,” he said.

There is an element of discomfort in stopping people from snorkelling, fishing or using the beach – activities a few months ago police officers would never have dreamt could fall under their jurisdiction.

An empty Seven Mile Beach as seen from the sky.

“It is almost like a parallel world, and nobody is allowed to do many of the things they want to do,” said Fitzgerald.

“We want to do the same things ourselves, but there is a reason behind it. If we all play by the rules, we all get through it in the end.”

A glimpse of things to come

Before Cayman’s first coronavirus case was announced, the aerial unit provided medical assistance to the MS Braemar cruise ship, which was stranded at sea, unable to find a welcoming port after an outbreak of COVID-19 on board in early March.

“That really focussed our minds for what was coming,” said Fitzgerald.

“We landed in Cuba and everybody was gowned up and masked up.”

Shortly after that trip, Fitzgerald split his team into three shifts, giving the police capacity for round-the-clock air support.

Each shift is kept separate and handovers take place in the aircraft hangar. Between shifts, the office and the aircraft are sanitised.

“We have to operate in a sterile environment… we cannot afford for one person to get sick and bring the whole unit down. We have to protect that resource.”

Lifeline to the Sister Islands

Sanitation is critical too because of the aerial unit’s other main role – bringing supplies and medevacing patients from the Sister Islands.

Anything from spare tyres for Little Cayman’s police vehicle to educational packs for school children on the Brac has been delivered via the police helicopter.

Steve Fitzgerald touches down in Little Cayman with a delivery of protective face masks. – Photo: RCIPS

Given the comparative prevalence of the virus on Grand Cayman, where 72 cases had been recorded as of Wednesday, compared with just one on Cayman Brac and none on Little Cayman, it is essential that the air crew takes extra precautions.

“Generally, we land, touch down, hand out and go. We don’t hang around in the Sister Islands,” Fitzgerald said.

In the five weeks since the crisis began, the air unit has been called on to medevac four patients from the Sister Islands.

Though none of those cases were COVID-19 related, they have worked with the Health Services Authority to develop protocols to evacuate patients without unsafe contact.

The police helicopter touches down at Faith Hospital on Cayman Brac to carry out a medevac.

“We have to act as though the patient has COVID and as though we may have COVID,” Fitzgerald said. “We protect ourselves and we protect the patient from us in the way we transport them.”

Emergency mode

Since the closure of the borders, the unit has been in emergency mode.

For its pilots and crews, that has meant an extraordinary workload. In the first three weeks after the closure, they logged 65 hours flying time alone. That compares with 35 hours in a regular month.

“Imagine you have a hurricane and you have emergency response, this is what we would do. We throw everything at it,” said Fitzgerald.

“It has been a challenge to maintain that, but we have achieved it.”

Exhausting as the schedule may be, there are some surprising perks.

One of them is the chance to get a bird’s eye view of the island as it has never been seen before.

Star Fish Point looks very different without boat traffic

“We are seeing an increase in marine life – shoals of fish and sharks in places we never normally saw them,” said Fitzgerald,

“With the Sister Islands particularly, it is really strange when you fly across there and see all the marine activity.”

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  1. SHAME on the people of Cayman for allowing their fear to turn this island into a police state. SHAME on them. Someone going for an innocent swim? Criminal! Someone driving down the road? Criminal! Newsflash: Corona virus can not and is not spread by someone taking a swim or driving down the road.
    Hopefully this police state activity will be looked back on in history for the criminal activity it is!

  2. The “best” way this virus spreads is in a hospital or care home.
    Followed by inside a church, movie theater or similar crowded place indoors.

    Next would be in an air-conditioned supermarket or bank.

    Close to the bottom of the list would be outdoors, where the virus fatty covering is quickly torn apart by the sun, heat and humidity.

    Swimming, snorkeling, driving in a car with windows closed…. zero chance of transmission.