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Angels from Above

August 10, 2012  By Brian Dunn

On the day Airmedic was inaugurating its new base at Mont Tremblant, Que., a 75-year-old patient was being transported from Chibougamau to Chicoutimi for a medical emergency in the company’s Eurocopter AS350 B2 leased from Capitale Hélicoptère of Quebec City.

On the day Airmedic was inaugurating its new base at Mont Tremblant, Que., a 75-year-old patient was being transported from Chibougamau to Chicoutimi for a medical emergency in the company’s Eurocopter AS350 B2 leased from Capitale Hélicoptère of Quebec City.

Airmedic will offer medical services from at least six bases by the end of June. (Photo courtesy of Airmedic)  

“The guy awoke in the helicopter beside a female pilot, female nurse and female medic and thought he had died and gone to heaven,” joked Christian Trudeau, CEO and partner in Airmedic, a new company created from AirMédic Air Ambulance, a 12-year-old company started in 2000 by François Rivard, director of air medical operations at Airmedic and another partner.

The third partner and financial backer for the new company is Stéphan Huot, a Quebec City real estate magnate and founder of Capitale Hélicoptère, one of the largest fleet owners in the provincial capital. A new subsidiary, GoHelico, offers VIP transport and helicopter tours of Quebec City and surrounding areas.

“Combining my passion for aviation with the mission of saving lives is a huge motivating factor,” said Huot. “When you consider how the availability of such emergency services can mean the difference between life and death, it is imperative that the entire province have access, particularly those regions that are hard to reach by land or sea.”

Three partners make up the Airmedic front office: Christian Trudeau, president/CEO; Stéphan Huot, a Quebec City real estate magnate and founder of Capitale Hélicoptère; and François Rivard, director of air medical operations.
(Photo courtesy of Airmedic)


That point was emphasized by Trudeau who noted Chibougamau is 110 kilometres from the nearest major town and a four-hour drive from the nearest hospital, compared to about an hour by helicopter, which can make a huge difference in a life or death situation.

The first mission at Mont Tremblant took place three days after the base was opened. “A patient in the Mauricie region had a severe allergic reaction to fish and was flown to the Pierre Boucher hospital in Montreal,” said Rivard.

Airmédic Air Ambulance was launched by Rivard, a paramedic in the Canadian army, after he returned from Yugoslavia to his base in Bagotville, Que. “I decided Quebec needed an air medical service after I realized that military helicopters at Bagotville would only transport military personnel,” explained Rivard, who also is a fixed-wing and rotary pilot. “Last year, Mr. Huot and I decided to form a new company with a vision of an air medical service to cover the entire province.”

Trudeau was brought in to realize that vision and build the company after playing similar roles in other companies, including BCE Emergis, Centria Commerce and Transcontinental Interactive. By the end of June, Airmedic’s objective was to have at least six bases of operation, namely the Saguenay, Mont Tremblant, Quebec City, Schefferville (the Caribou hunting capital of Northern Quebec), Chibougamau and St. Hubert on the south shore of Montreal with a helicopter at each base, plus a Pilatus PC-12 at St. Hubert to offer 24-hour medical emergency service.

“Under Transport Canada regulations, you can’t offer nighttime medical service using a single-engine helicopter. That’s why we have the Pilatus and we plan to add a twin-engine helicopter,” said Trudeau. Most of the bases will operate EC-130 B4s from Eurocopter Canada of Fort Erie, Ont., while a twin-engine Bell 429 or twin AgustaWestland AW169 will be stationed at St. Hubert to complement the Pilatus. About 85 per cent of the work will involve inter-hospital transport and the remaining 15 per cent will be emergency medical evacuations, according to Trudeau.

“A lot of emergency procedures can’t be performed at hospitals in the outlying regions, because they don’t have the resources, so patients would be transported here to Montreal where all the specialists work. Mont Tremblant was the only major tourist destination in North America that didn’t have an air ambulance service. If they had, then the actress (Natasha Richardson, who died in 2009 following a head injury sustained when she fell during a skiing lesson at Tremblant) might still be alive today.”

One of Airmedic’s aircraft is a Eurocopter AS350 B2 leased from Capitale Hélicoptère of Quebec City.
(Photo courtesy of Airmedic)


Before Airmedic was created, Rivard was doing everything himself at his former company, from running the company to hiring the pilots and medical staff. During his 12 years running AirMédic Air Ambulance, the company responded to 2,600 emergency calls and flew 1,500 missions. Some emergencies couldn’t be handled due to bad weather or because they required night flying.

The only other air medical service in Quebec is handled by a Quebec government Challenger jet and a few smaller regional players, but there’s no guarantee the service will be available when needed, said Trudeau. It also requires time to put a medical team together for the flight and the smaller players don’t have the same structure as Airmedic.

“Over the short term, Airmedic will continue to provide an ambulance service to members as well as non-members under current terms and conditions. We have already begun implementing a strategy to improve service and provide first-class aero medical services across the entire province,” said Trudeau.

Airmedic has about 13,000 members who pay an annual fee of $120 for any air transport they might need during the year. To qualify, they must have a GPS telephone if they’re outside normal cellphone coverage to reach airmedic’s 1-800 number. Non-members can pay upwards of $10,000 for the same privilege, according to Trudeau. However, if it’s an inter-hospital transport, the hospital picks up the tab.

“But say you’re on a fishing trip or canoe trip and you suffer a stroke or heart attack, you’ll pay thousands of dollars to be airlifted to the nearest hospital, although about 80 per cent of the cost should be covered if you have private health insurance,” he said.

The Airmedic service will offer immediate care to those in need – something the province has lacked to this point.
(Photo courtesy of Airmedic)


There’s also a corporate membership whose cost is based on the number of employees signed up and a temporary five-day card for $25 for city dwellers on vacation in the wilds. For those who aren’t covered and can’t afford it, the Fondation Airmédic will help defray the cost.

“In a province of eight million people, 13,000 members is not a lot. Switzerland has about seven million people and two million are members of Rega (Swiss Air Rescue),” said Trudeau. “We hope to boost membership to 100,000 in the short term and our target is one million members within the next five years.”

To reach that goal, the company was planning to host several media events across Quebec to announce the new expanded service in addition to social media and television campaigns in the fall. The company is also targeting snowmobile clubs and outdoor clubs and is improving its website.

In addition, there will be plenty of other opportunities for Airmedic under Plan Nord, Premier Jean Charest’s ambitious $80 billion, 25-year program to open Quebec’s north to mining, forestry and eco-tourism. The service would complement GroupeTransrapide, a trucking division specializing in northern transport also owned by Huot. “Certainly Plan Nord will be an excellent opportunity for us as there is no other evacuation program currently in place,” Huot said.

Trudeau maintains Quebec is one of the few regions in the developed world that doesn’t offer air medical service, because it requires a major investment. “You’re looking at $2 to $3 million for each helicopter plus all the bases. We’re completely private. Most other jurisdictions, including [Ornge in], Ontario are parapublic.”

In addition to offering air medical service, Airmedic has the only air paramedical training centre in Quebec that has turned out more than 250 graduates, according to Rivard, including about 55 who worked for his former company.

“One of our biggest challenges is that all the major hospitals in Montreal don’t have helipads, because the service didn’t exist, and within the next 10 years, Montreal highways will be completely jammed, making ambulance drivers’ jobs more difficult,” noted Trudeau. “Hopefully, we can convince the two new super hospitals [under construction] to include helipads.”

Although Airmedic was modelled after similar programs around the globe, there will be new features added that Huot wasn’t prepared to discuss for competitive reasons. He also hopes his membership formula will enable him to open other bases if necessary, offer more services and help Airmedic become a major player in his growing transportation, real estate and construction empire.

“It has certainly cost me the most money,” Huot said. The lives the new service will save, however, is anything but a laughing matter – and can’t be quantified by dollars and cents.


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