Monday, January 28, 2013

The ASU is not just about pilots and observers..

The one role in the whole ASU system that has so far gone unmentioned in my blogs about @mpsinthesky is the Control Room
Before I go any further, allow me to show you the place, so you can start to comprehend what happens up there.

As you can see, quite a few screens with different data on them to be watching. And this is not all of them. There are more out of view of this picture.
So who works up here, and what is their role in the whole ASU system.

Its easy to think that you make a 999 call, the CAD operator requests i99 to attend, et voila, they are overhead, but its really not as simple as that, so for those interested, allow me to explain a little.

There are a number of ways that you can find the ASU hovering overhead, and a multitude of roles it could be carrying out. The list is not exhaustive, but here are a good few examples of the various roles of the ASU.

Surveillance or info gathering for planned events, such as raids, or public events which require contingency planning.
Monitoring of events on the ground which could result in harm to the public or officers. Flash flooding, protests, and other things which can change in nature suddenly.
Missing persons searches. One of the ASU's largest roles is finding missing vulnerable people, such as the elderly or mentally ill. As well as reports of injured people in remote locations.
Escort duties ranging from diplomats and royalty, to Cat A prisoners too and from court, and under transfers.

As you can see from the list so far, none of this is the high octane, high speed stuff you see on TV. And its roles like those above that I wish more people understood about.

I digress...

Back to the Control Room
The functions carried out up here are anything from communications, to future planning for big jobs, like the Olympics recently. Manned by just a single controller, things can get quite crazy in there at times, especially when there is a lot going on.  As well as the pilot monitoring weather, and other conditions, the controller will also be keeping a watchful eye on the weather over the whole area that the ASU cover, and communicating with the CAD rooms requesting i99's assistance, letting them know if it is even possible for them to fly in that area.
The ASU will not attend all jobs it is requested to attend. While it is a powerful tool in the fight against crime, and can transit from one point of Greater London to another in mere minutes, a decision has to be made on both its effectiveness in a requested job, and priority given to other more important incidents. This is where the controller becomes key. While the guys and girls on-board the ASU will be engrossed in the job at hand, the controller can keep an eye on any requests coming in, and help in deciding what job they can attend next, whilst keeping tabs on what's happening on-board via the uplink from the chopper.

All the screens in the control room can give a clear picture of the incident the ASU are dealing with, and the experience of the controller will tell them when the unit may be clear for the next job, while the radio chatter, and information flow from the unit and the CAD rooms will help make this decision. On board the chopper, the observers can also engage in this decision, whilst also identifying other jobs that they can assist in while in the local area. Some great examples of this were given during the tour.

Clearly from everything going on, and the mass of information and requests coming in, chemistry between ALL members of the ASU is vital. From ground staff in the control room and engineering staff, to the pilot and observers, everyone understanding what the others need is what makes the whole unit run so smoothly.

While sitting in the back of the EC145, you appreciate just how much goes on in that little area, and how many functions can be carried out from one seat. Commentary, navigation, observation, photography, filming, tracking, searching and so much more. Meanwhile in the control room, there is just as much multi-tasking going on, with the controller using comms between ground and the air unit, monitoring weather, helping to decide where the unit can go next, receiving live pictures from the helicopter, not forgetting of course the KEY role, keeping the Twitter feed lively.

I joke of course, but thought it prudent to mention that it is in fact the controller on the ground, when time permits, who is updating the Twitter feed. Since my initial POST visit blog, I have been asked a few times about things like this, and can confirm the following.
Only some of the ASU participate in the Twitter feed, so sometimes when it goes a little bit quiet for a shift or a day, it is because the staff on shift are either too busy, or don't currently participate in the updating of the feed.
The amazing pictures that sometimes appear, from scenic night shots of London, to fog shrouded images of the City, right down to the overheads of London's premier football stadiums. These are indeed snapped by the ASU guys up in the chopper. Usually while returning from jobs, and on their own mobile devices, or camera's, then uploaded to Twitter once back at Lippitts Hill. No tax payers money was wasted in the capturing of these images. So anyone feeling robbed or hard done by can put their minds to rest.

Since the Twitter feed of the ASU first started, I have loved the interactions with the staff at Lippitts, and am so happy to see the following of them has grown to somewhere in the region of 30k followers. The feed is a gear insight into the goings on of the unit, and answers those 2am questions of 'why is the helicopter over my house waking me up?' Usually once the matter is resolved a quick update will appear. Of course not EVERY job can be shared via Twitter. Some matters will relate to ongoing investigations and cases, so the information is still too sensitive to be given out.

I have to admit though, I would LOVE to see a full on '24 hours in the ASU feed' just as a one off, just to give people a true understanding of just how much work they can do in a day. Tony was telling us that in a 10 hour period, 6 of those can be spend airborne on jobs, which is a lot more than I imagined.
So @mpsinthesky if you are reading this, I offer my services to do a civilian view of '24 hours in the ASU' ;) (was worth a try eh!)

So next time you see the majestic EC145 hovering over an area near you, know this. There may be 3 crew on board, carrying out a multitude of tasks, none of which will be trivial. But there is also a controller back in the office at Lippitts Hill who is just as much a part of the unit as the guys in the skies. And not to forget the highly skilled engineers also back at Lippitts who schedule and carry out the works on the fleet of 3 EC145's that make up the Met Police ASU.
If they wake up up in the early hours, it is because a crime has been committed locally to you, and they are working towards catching the suspect, and in turn preventing YOU from being the next victim of a burglary, car theft, or street robbery. Have a question about the operation, throw them a tweet on @mpsinthesky .

Thank you once again to all the guys I met on Sunday up at Lippitts, and for sharing so much information with us all. And once again that offer, happy to do '24hours in the ASU' any time lol.

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