The eye in the sky

Catching criminals, finding lost hikers and locating underground hot spots in wildfire areas just got easier.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Office recently mounted a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera to a helicopter that detects heat and creates a "picture" for law enforcement officials.

The FLIR camera can spin in any direction, including straight up and down. Any heat it picks up appears as an image on a monitor inside the helicopter, and can also be transmitted to two mobile command centers in Jackson County.

Sheriff Mike Winters said the infrared device has many practical applications, including search and rescue efforts.

Multiple uses

"This will be a tremendous help in saving time and lives," he said. "The faster we can find people, the better &

especially during cold winter months when hypothermia can set in quickly."

Winters said it will also help deputies who are on the ground during vehicle pursuits.

"We've had a couple instances during pursuits when the vehicles got into accidents and the suspects ran into nearby brush," he said. "With the FLIR, it will be virtually impossible for suspects to hide from us."

Winters sees the FLIR as a useful tool for fire season as well, and wants to make the technology available to local fire departments and Oregon Department of Forestry.

"We had lightning strikes on Grizzly Peak just the other day. With the FLIR, we could now go up and scan the area for fires and let firefighters know exactly where they need to go," he said. "This will also detect underground tree roots that are burning."

Winters said the $300,000 FLIR purchase, which came out of the general fund from monies he's saved in the last five years, makes up for the lack of deputies in his department.

"I'm half staffed by national standards," he said. "Having just one helicopter with a FLIR is like having an extra 25 officers out there."

Jackson County is the only law enforcement agency between Sacramento, Calif. and Portland with the infrared technology.

"Southern Oregon is very lucky to have this," Winters said.

Three-day training

— — The infrared device, manufactured by FLIR Systems, Inc., is shown mounted on a helicopter.

Jackson County Special Deputy Burl Brim, owner of Brim Aviation at Ashland Municipal Airport, is contracted by Jackson County to respond with one to three helicopters when the sheriff's department needs the assistance.

FLIR Systems, Inc., an international company based out of Wilsonville, Ore., sent an instructor to train Brim and three tactical flight officers for a three-day training session that began Monday.

However, the 6 a.m. training on Tuesday didn't sit well with a few Ashlanders who woke up to the sound of hovering aircraft flying low over residential areas of Ashland.

Winters said it was important that the pilots get trained in all terrains, and be able to differentiate between human and animal images on the monitor. The thermal image appears on the monitor as a white object against a black backdrop.

"They need to see the difference between a dog and a person riding a bike," he said.

Winters also stressed that the equipment only picked up heat images and could not detect anything through vehicle or building windows.

Brim, who said he received about four complaints from residents near downtown, admits the helicopter was flying at 500 feet Tuesday morning.

"We regret flying over town that early," he said. "There was a mistake in communication; but we wanted some experience in an urban setting. It won't happen again unless there's an emergency."

Palm FLIRs

In addition to the helicopter-mounted FLIR, the sheriff's department also has two hand-held infrared devices.

Randy Jones of Medford, a search and rescue volunteer who uses his own helicopter for operations, purchased one of the $10,000 units.

Jones was involved in the James Kim search in November 2006. Kim, his wife and two daughters were stranded on a remote road in Southern Oregon during a snow storm. After spending nearly a week in the vehicle with his family, he struck out on his own to try and find help. The wife and kids were eventually rescued, but Kim died of hypothermia before rescuers found him.

"During the course of that search, I just kept thinking how much I wanted one of those handheld infrared detecting devices," Jones said.

With the search ending so tragically, Jones said he went out and bought the device and donated it to the county.

"I take it out with me on every mission, even though it's not needed every time," he said.

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