Criminals will have nowhere to hide in Wiltshire thanks to an £850,000 refit of the force’s helicopter and air ambulance which means its cameras can seek out people up to two miles away.
The helicopter, which has been out of action since October, has returned with the most modern equipment money can buy.
Police observer Kevin Reed, who has been part of the helicopter team for seven years, said: “The new camera system puts us at the cutting edge of technology and as a result will make our effectiveness at both police and medical scenes much improved.
“Before, with the old camera, we would only be able to see the outlines of people, now we can see the stitching in their clothing.”
The camera will enable the crew at 2,000 ft to see people two and a half miles away and has both daytime cameras and night-time thermal imaging cameras.
The upgrade also includes a new Tetra radio system.
It is expected the camera system will not only benefit the police in their hunt for criminals but also help paramedics looking for vulnerable missing people and the injured.
The upgrade, which is deemed essential, was paid for by Wiltshire Police and the Wiltshire Air Ambulance Appeal.
The appeal paid about £220,000 towards the camera, and around £18,000 towards the radio system which cost £50,000.
The ten-year-old helicopter, which is one of only two in the country to be shared by a police force and air ambulance team, went to the Police Aviation Service at Staverton Airfield in October to have the new Flir Star Safire camera fitted to the front of the MD902 helicopter.
The Air Operations Unit, at Wiltshire Police headquarters in Devizes has been using an older Bulkoe helicopter in the meantime, which only flies during the day. It was supplied by the Police Aviation Service which owns both helicopters.
Both police officers and paramedics who are based at the unit have been training to use the new system.
Team leader paramedic Richard Miller said: “The speed to find a location or address is much quicker, so whereas before we may have been hovering overhead looking for an address, the camera can now zoom in and find that straight away, saving time and getting to the patient faster.
“Without a doubt we could save more lives.”
Pilot George Lawrence said: “The new equipment will increase the safety of the aircraft.
“It makes the pilot’s life easier as we used to have to get fairly low if we were checking number plates. We had to reach the limitation of what you were allowed to do.
“Now we can see things a lot more clearly from higher and further away.”
He added that the helicopter will be quieter because it no longer needs to go so low during searches.
Pc Reed said: “We can now go into built-up areas as we are more able to identify people with the descriptions we have been given whereas before the camera couldn’t give us the added detail of what they were wearing.”
During the upgrade the stretcher, which has carried thousands of patients to hospital over the past decade, was also refurbished.
The work took two months because the helicopter had to be taken apart to rewire the system.
The layout at the back of the helicopter was also changed because the new camera is smaller but heavier, which affects the balance.
Melanie Glanville, communications officer for Great Western Ambulance Service said: “We have had an extremely busy year so fundraising has been really good.
“As soon as we found out about the repairs earlier this year we knew we would have to pick up the pace with fundraising.
“Some of the money we had to take from our reserves and we have been quite lucky this year in that we have had some generous legacies which went towards the upgrade.”
On average it costs £800 per hour of flight to run the helicopter
It costs the Wiltshire Air Ambulance Appeal £1,369 a day to keep the helicopter running for medical tasks
Wiltshire Police are given a grant of £400,000 a year from central Government towards running the helicopter, while the force puts in £400,000 of its own funds and Wiltshire Air Ambulance Appeal puts in around £500,000
From January 1 2009 to December 18 2009 the total number of helicopter incidents was 1130, 511 of those were medical tasks and the rest, 619, were police tasks.
Wiltshire Air Ambulance Appeal will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in March 2010
The Wiltshire Air Ambulance is one of two in the country to run at night.
On September 10 it was announced that the Duchess of Cornwall was to become patron of the appeal.