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The bird’s the word

As seen through rear rotor Lake County Sheriff's Department helicopter shoppers walk entrance Merrillville Kmart during store's safety fair Oct.

As seen through the rear rotor of the Lake County Sheriff's Department helicopter, shoppers walk to the entrance of the Merrillville Kmart during the store's safety fair on Oct. 6. Law enforcement agencies and safety experts provided tours and information to visitors. | Anthony D. Alonzo/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 13, 2013 6:05AM



Pilots, patrol officers and store clerks showed shoppers some of the resources available to help keep residents out of harm’s way at a recent safety fair hosted by the Merrillville Kmart.

Members of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department and first responders from local municipalities teamed up with the retailer in early October for the store’s National Safety Weekend.

Automotive, fire and general pedestrian safety issues were detailed in brochures passed out to customers. Items such as smoke detectors and car tool kits were discounted for the event. Stealing the show, however, was the county’s police helicopter, which swooped into the plaza.

Cordoned off by shopping carts, the American Eurocopter EC 120 drew a crowd. Sheriff’s Department pilots George Nestorovich and Randy Phillips stood by and fielded questions.

“What is it used for?” asked children, while an older visitor remarked that the vehicle looked much bigger up close.

Highland resident Brittany Bagwell brought her daughters to the store and said she they were drawn to the whirlybird.

“My daughter really likes helicopters and she wanted to say ‘hi’ to the helicopter man,” Bagwell said. “(It’s good) for them to learn about safety and how they work all the machines. I’d like them to learn that if they see (the vehicles), why they see them.”

Her 4-year-old daughter Kylie was jumping in place for excitement, as her sister, Kacie, 2, got to sit in the pilot’s seat.

“This educates people,” said Nestorovich. “Once they see the equipment they say, ‘oh, that makes sense.’”

The pilots explained that the helicopter — one of several operated by the county — remains on standby at the Griffith Airport and is put into service when the department needs a bird’s-eye view of traffic, to search for people, or assist during an emergency.

Bagwell talked about some of her family’s public safety practices, such as scoping out where an information or police booth is at a fair and writing her phone number with a marker on her children’s arms.

Sheriff’s police officer and K-9 specialist Bryan Zabrecky parked his squad car near the store’s portico and allowed his dog to come out of his backseat kennel. Zahr, a large 3-year-old German Shephard, was kept close and on a leash.

“(We brought the dog) for exposure to the general public,” Zabrecky said about Zahr, his “constant back-up.” “(We) teach kids to be careful around dogs, and teach how to approach them.”

Zahr is not present for routine traffic stops but rather specializes in assisting in higher-risk operations to detect explosives.

“This dog is beautiful,” said Pam Shawtell of Crown Point.

Shawtell’s son, Luke, 8, remained most impressed by the helicopter.

“It was cool to see what a real helicopter looks like inside,” he said with his 8-year-old sister Anna looking on.



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