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Ornge helicopters banned from “essential” procedure

July 5, 2013  By The Toronto Star

July 5, 2013, Ottawa - For more than a year, ORNGE has banned a “vital” procedure allowing paramedics to hop out of a hovering air ambulance helicopter and quickly get to a patient needing urgent medical care.

Known as a “hover exit,” it was used to deliver paramedics to sites that lacked a suitable landing spot close to the patient.

Instead of attempting a
risky landing, the pilots would put their helicopters into a low hover
and the medics would jump out, gear in hand, enabling them to quickly
get to the patient to begin potentially life-saving treatment.

Veteran air ambulance
pilots, including several working at ORNGE, spoke about the issue to the
Star on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. They say
hover exits are necessary for landing at remote northern sites and in
cottage country.


Hover exits were
initially banned within ORNGE in 2011 on the Agusta-Westland AW139
helicopters that were entering the fleet at the time.

In 2012, ORNGE took
over operation of its helicopter fleet from Canadian Helicopters. Within
weeks, ORNGE banned the practice entirely, including on its Sikorsky

ORNGE says it must
develop a training program before the practice can be resumed and they
expect this to happen in the “near term.”

The pilots say the
fact this procedure — common to helicopter operations — remains banned
lays bare the gulf between ORNGE’s front-line workers and senior

“This procedure was an
essential tool especially when operating in the northern bases where it
was difficult to land the helicopter because of the terrain,” said one

Another pilot said hover exits were useful when responding to medical calls in cottage country.

“You go to the cottage
at some lake and there’s no real convenient place to land. There’s a
nice big dock sticking out into the lake,” the pilot said.

“You come into a hover over the dock, the paramedics jump out and go in and start to do their work,” he said.

Once initial treatment
had been provided, the medics would move the patient to a suitable
landing site, sometimes with the help of all-terrain vehicles or snow
machines, where the helicopter would be waiting.

“We get people trapped
in the bush, frozen lakes. The forte of the helicopter is to land where
no one else can get to,” said a veteran helicopter pilot.

“If we could get the medics to the patient, (that’s) a big problem solved,” he said.

Among helicopter
operators, hover exits are routine manoeuvres to drop loggers, surveyors
and fire crews at remote sites where a full landing would be too risky.

“That’s why people hire the helicopter to get to those places,” the pilot said.

ORNGE banned hover
exits just weeks after formally taking control of the helicopter program
from Canadian Helicopters saying that pilots and medics needed to be
retrained on the procedure.

In an April 26, 2012
memo to flight crews, ORNGE said that it had a Transport Canada-approved
training program for hover exits but said the procedure was prohibited
until that training “can be properly implemented and documented.”

Yet more than a year
later, ORNGE pilots and medics remain under the directive forbidding the
move. The training that appeared ready has yet to be offered.

An ORNGE spokesperson
said the previous management at ORNGE under CEO Dr. Chris Mazza made the
original decision to discontinue hover exits (when the Agusta
helicopters were being introduced).

“When new management
came on board, this decision was revisited and hover exits were
identified as a useful tool,” James MacDonald said in an email.

Before the practice
could be reinstated, he said that ORNGE sought to develop a “formalized
training program” to establish policies and procedures for paramedics.

“This training
program, as well as a risk assessment, is currently in the works. Once
the training has been completed, we will be able to perform hover
exits,” MacDonald said.

“It is anticipated this will happen in the near term,” he said.


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