Thurston County Sheriff working to procuring helicopter exclusive to search, rescue, and pursuit missions


“Thurston County Sheriff's Office (TCSO) is the 5th largest sheriff's office in the state. All four sheriff's offices that are larger than us have aviation programs,” Thurston County Sheriff Derek Sanders told Thurston’s Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) at a meeting yesterday.

Sanders shared data and insights with the board regarding TCSO’s need for an aviation program.

According to Sanders, an aviation program is considered a basic function of a sheriff's office with the county’s size, especially its “diverse geographical landscape.”

All the lakes, rivers, and waterways near the county fall to TCSO by default.

“The Sheriff's Office has been in the procurement process long since before I took office to acquire a helicopter,” said Sanders.

Sanders said that TCSO is eyeing acquiring and modifying TH67 helicopters, a surplus training model from the military.


Currently, the Washington State Patrol has a fleet of helicopters named Smokey, which is mostly responsible for the Western part of Washington state, which limits Thurston County’s ability to request assistance.

Sanders said having an air unit that TCSO can exclusively dispatch would be a huge asset to the office.

“The plan is to utilize the helicopters as search and rescue assets. So between capital forests and all of our waterways, a helicopter would be a much more efficient way to extract people, locate people, and assist in those operations compared to just a ground search,” Sanders said.

 In 2021, TCSO responded to 107 water rescue calls, of which 69 came from Puget Sound, 14 from the Nisqually River, and 24 from other waterways.

TCSO’s primary response vessels for water rescue are boats that consume 50 gallons of fuel an hour at $9 per gallon or more.

These boats also lose vessel integrity for an unknown amount of time, and it also takes longer to respond to water incidents, taking 30 minutes to two hours.

TCSO proposed the aviation program as the solution, as it would shorten the response time to 15 to 20 minutes.

Helicopters also cost less, burning 25 gallons of fuel per hour at $6 - $7 per gallon.

The aviation program would feature a Human External Cargo (HEC) system, which would hoist officers to inaccessible locations. 

The helicopters would not be used for executive transport, SWAT team rappelling, and protests, unless a significant crime occurs, such as a shooting, and a specific need is requested.


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  • JulesJames

    No thank you. Maintaining a squad of police pilots is plenty much more expensive than the entire sworn staff becoming proficient in small boat handling. Maintaining a hand-me-down helicopter likely would cost more than buying new boats each year. One hundred water calls a year won't be moved to helicopter from boat. Boats will still be needed to bring the sinking vessels to shore. I support Sheriff Sanders, but not on putting extra noise in the air for the every excuse that is used to justify a helicopter.

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • JnNwmn

    The TH67 helicopter is based from the old Bell 206 helicopter. The updated cost is $1200 per hour. It is a snow job for the Sheriff to say they will not use it except for search and rescue. "OR" unless there is gun violence and we need the SWAT team. It would be much much cheaper to just contract out a helicopter from the airport. The forest service contracts all their fire helicopters. The Bureau of Land Management contracts all their helicopter use. Derek Sanders does not need his own helicopter to fly around in.

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • WayTooOld

    What JnNwmn said. I appreciate the desire to perform better. Certainly, a helicopter would help. The cost doesn’t seem to justify it, though. And, “Timmy has a helicopter” isn’t a good argument in my book. Maybe try that argument again when a county SMALLER than us has one. Every county in Washington without a helicopter, can say that the top four counties have helicopters and they don’t.

    In the meantime, contracting with someone seems to me like a cost-effective way to meet the needs of search and rescue.

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • LaceyDad

    I am really having trouble believing that the cost to maintain and operate a helicopter - including keeping skilled pilots trained and current - is less than the price of maintaining and operating a couple of boats and a really nice drone in the trunk of each deputy's patrol car.

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • jimlazar

    A drone, maybe. A helicopter, absolutely not. Sheriff Sanders has been fed deceptive data if he thinks that helicopters use less fuel than boats. Good grief: they are money pits.

    As John Newman pointed out, this model of helicopter costs $1200/hour to operate when in the air. And that's before the cost of qualified pilots. What are they going to do: sit around at the airport all day and night, waiting for a call? And once a month actually have some work to do?

    The Sheriff should abandon this plan, and concentrate on things that improve the quality of service, reduce the cost of service, and improve the environmental profile. Spend the money on a fleet of electric Tesla Y or Mach-E patrol vehicles -- one fourth of the pollution of the current fleet (and a lot more powerful when the power is needed).

    No helicopter. This is not Los Angeles, and, besides, OJ is dead, so there won't be a Bronco to chase.

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • jimlazar

    What fuel is the Sheriff department buying for $9/gallon?

    The Port of Olympia Swantown fueling station is charging $5.40 for alcohol-free gasoline and $4.65 for zero-sulfur diesel fuel. And other local sellers have even lower prices.

    We need some cost control supervision over Sheriff Sanders.

    Friday, April 12 Report this

  • ChuckCross

    All of the posted comments so far, have been a big NO HELICOPTER vote. Mr. Lazar offers what seems a reasonable optional course of action, as do the folks suggesting contracting services for a helicopter. The Sheriff has not defined a need for the expense of securing and maintaining a County helicopter service.

    Saturday, April 13 Report this