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Phoenix Heli-Flight has plans for medevac expansion

September 5, 2012  By Fort McMurray Today

Sept. 5, 2012, Fort McMurray, Alta. - After several long years of discussion, interest in expanding the Phoenix Heli-Flight fleet to include a new dedicated chopper, equipped for night services throughout the region has been renewed.

Paul Spring, operations manager of Phoenix Heli-Flight, says he began working with a local physician eight years ago to develop a budget and framework for the addition of a new helicopter. Spring says they’re looking at Alberta Health Services for financial support and sanctions, and while the conversation had stalled, the accident on Highway 63 in April that claimed the lives of seven people has renewed interest in the added support.

“It put a lot of latent issues into the spotlight here in McMurray,” said Spring. “The hospital had done some studies in the past and the fire department had done some studies in the past about servicing the outlaying communities and what demands weren’t being met by the existing service.”

Spring says Phoenix has been providing non-dedicated emergency medical services to the region for more than 20 years, but that the company is limited by their ability to only fly during daylight hours.

The hope is to purchase an approximately $7-million helicopter — compared to the $3 million choppers Phoenix currently uses — that is up to par with night-flying specifications.


“To go nighttime, there’s a lot of other rules governed by Transport Canada that come into play that dictate the type of equipment, and that’s where the added expense comes in,” said Spring.

Night flying requires double the crew as daytime, forward-looking infrared and night vision goggles. The new chopper would also be a dedicated service, meaning pilots and paramedics would be on standby 24 hours a day.

The current Phoenix fleet of stretcher equipped helicopters is five strong, and are chartered out to businesses and individuals in addition to EMS calls. And while not required, Spring says they make a point of keeping at least one helicopter ready and on standby, even though Phoenix only gets paid if there is an EMS call.

“Because I’m a long time member of the community, I know the importance of a quick dispatch,” explained Spring. “We typically keep one of the helicopters that isn’t on charter ready, so it’ll have a stretcher in it and it’ll have fuel in it, ready to go. The guys do the morning checks on it and it gets a little sign on it that says, ‘Ready for medevac,’ which means the pilot can walk up to it, kick it out the door and be gone in five minutes.

“We don’t hope for medevacs, but if we do get one, that’s how we make some money back. It’s really more of a social dedication than anything else, because I would hate to hear that my good friend’s son or daughter died because there was a delay in dispatching an aircraft. So, as a moral responsibility, we try to keep on ready to go at all times,” said Spring.

Dedicated, Spring continued, means the only job that particular helicopter would have would be to fly for EMS purposes with two dedicated pilots and paramedics.

“They would sit here just like at a fire hall or with an ambulance, 24 hours a day, ready to go,” he said.

An added bonus of Phoenix taking on the responsibility of running dedicated emergency services is that Phoenix is already established in the community, meaning the overhead would be less than if a new company were to come into the area.

“We know all the bus, we know all the client facilities — there’s not too many places in the northeastern part of Alberta that if somebody told us where we were going, we wouldn’t already know where it was,” said Spring. “We do know. We have all these places locked down. Area knowledge and bush knowledge is key in the kind of work we do.”

Spring says he hopes talks will continue between AHS, Phoenix and other health services in the region.

“We have run a very successful daytime medical evacuation program for 20 years jointly with the fire department on an ad hoc basis and citizens probably don’t know that the city pays for that,” said Spring. “There is a good, active program in place; we just want to expand it so it can service people who happen to get injured after dark.”


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