Aircraft are important to public safety in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, June 20, 2004

The recent announcement by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) that we were considering proposals that could allow us to obtain a jet aircraft has raised some questions. To fully understand the basis for this proposal, I believe it is helpful to have an understanding of DPS aircraft use.

There is no question that Alaska is the largest and least accessible of the 50 states. It is no coincidence that we have long held the distinction of having the most licensed pilots per-capita of any state. Aircraft are tools that have been and will continue to be integral to meeting the needs of Alaskans. For DPS, our aircraft missions include search and rescue, emergency response, general law enforcement, wildlife and fisheries enforcement, support to other agencies, prisoner transport, and transportation of the governor.

The DPS aircraft fleet consists of 41 fixed-wing and rotor-wing platforms. We operate single-engine and twin-engine platforms as well as reciprocating and turbine engines. Our fixed-wing fleet ranges from Super Cubs to King Airs. Not surprisingly, our aircraft fleet is as varied as the department's missions. Likewise, a visit to any fixed base operator who provides varied services in Alaska would reveal a fleet of aircraft with different capabilities. Varied missions require aircraft with varied performance capabilities.

A year ago, DPS had 46 aircraft. Last year the Legislature granted the department the authority to sell some existing aircraft and use the proceeds to purchase a Caravan aircraft in order to address our needs in the Bethel region. In this situation, we felt we had an opportunity to reduce our aircraft fleet, reduce operating costs, and at the same time secure the best platform to accomplish our mission. Over the years, we have taken the opportunity to increase our capabilities when they were presented. As a result, DPS has an outstanding fleet of aircraft that operate throughout Alaska. The process we are now exploring is to determine if we can again improve our aircraft capabilities for the long term.

Since the terrorist attack on our country on Sept. 11, 2001, an emphasis has been placed on the security of our nation. This has included the acquisition of homeland security equipment and training. Although we hope that this equipment never needs to be used in a real homeland security incident, being prepared includes having the tools to respond. It makes considerable sense to use federal funding to invest in assets that address homeland security capabilities while also improving overall long-term public service capabilities. The homeland security responsibilities of the state are broader than those of the municipalities. The authority and responsibilities of DPS range from serving Point Barrow, to Ketchikan, and past Unalaska. In major events, whether the need is for senior managers on the ground, natural disaster teams, or law enforcement tactical teams, the ability to respond rapidly is an asset.

Much of the dialogue concerning potential acquisition of a jet aircraft has focused on the governor's use of state aircraft. DPS aircraft use by Gov. Murkowski is no different than that of his predecessor. More importantly is that any aircraft the governor travels on is an asset available to the department to meet its core missions. While this may be a convenient topic in this political season, such discussion overshadows the potential for the state to gain an asset under favorable financial conditions. If we are successful, we will have an asset that can rapidly cover the vast regions of Alaska for any major event and would also be used to transport convicted offenders between Arizona and Alaska.

Only after a careful review of proposals can we determine if obtaining a used jet is in the best interests of the state. The ultimate question that needs to be answered is if the additional cost per hour of a jet, balanced against reduced flight times and rapid response benefits, weighs in favor of the public interests.

While some political opponents would have our governor living in a tent, riding a horse and flying in a biplane, I am confident that the majority of Alaskans will recognize the importance of aviation assets in accomplishing the DPS mission. Our aircraft are not toys or chariots; they are tools for our mission.

• William Tandeske is the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety in the Murkowski administration.

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