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We Canadians often take our health-care system for granted, especially those of us who live in the densely populated southern regions of the country.


July 30, 2013
By Paul Dixon

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We Canadians often take our health-care system for granted, especially those of us who live in the densely populated southern regions of the country. Last year,  Helicopters reported on the dedicated air ambulance services provided by BC Ambulance in British Columbia and the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service (STARS) in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Phoenix-Heli-Flight-121  
By adding to its fleet and upping its commitment to help those in need, Fort McMurray, Alta.-based Phoenix Heli-Flight is filling a necessary void in Alberta’s medical care. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Heli-Flight)


 

But as effective as both services have proven to be over the years, there are large areas of both B.C. and Alberta that are outside the response capability of the dedicated helicopters, with the only option being smaller VFR helicopters hired on a per-call basis. The smaller VFR aircraft are less effective than larger, dedicated HEMS aircraft, leaving many feeling there is a need for improved service. In an era when governments are tightening belts and are holding the line on budgets, there are two initiatives underway to bring dedicated air ambulance service to underserviced regions.

Fort McMurray is the hub of northeastern Alberta, tar sands country. Development in the region has seen population grow from 6,800 in 1971 to more than 80,000 today, with workers streaming in from across Canada and around the world. In a region with few roads, as oil and gas exploration pushes further and further out into the wilderness, often the only access to work sites is by helicopter.

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Paul Spring has operated Phoenix Heli-Flight in Fort McMurray since 1982, providing ad hoc air ambulance service to the local regional district for more than 20 years. Emergency medical service for Fort McMurray and the Regional District of Wood Buffalo is provided by Wood Buffalo Regional Fire Department. Over the past decade, Spring has toyed with the idea of a dedicated air ambulance. It’s a popular idea with many people, but when the conversation shifts to the costs involved, the momentum stalls. Now, Spring is ready to take action.

“We’ve operated a very successful VFR medical evacuation program for 20 years jointly with the fire department on an ad hoc basis, averaging around 70 calls a year,” he says. “We just want to expand it so we can operate around the clock.” Spring says most people don’t realize this service is paid for by the local municipality and not by the province. The province is currently working through yet another feasibility study on the subject.

The event that finally triggered the critical momentum was a multi-vehicle crash on Highway 63 between Edmonton and Fort McMurray in April 2012 that resulted in seven fatalities. Spring committed his own money to purchase a helicopter capable of providing 24/7 IFR air ambulance service, with a philosophy he describes as, “if you build it, they will come.” His determination sparked widespread interest across the region.

“We had a meeting on Jan. 15 with about 27 groups in attendance – Alberta Fire Commissioner, Alberta Health Services, Municipal Affairs, Oil Sands Developers Group, Petrocan, Husky, Shell, BP, the whole list of big and small oil operators. That one meeting resulted in a commitment for almost $600,000 a year in funding and now we’re getting other offers of funding and even people sending in personal cheques. While the government’s official position is ‘no response’ while it’s latest study is underway, there have been no negative comments.”

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Prince George, B.C.-based HEROS hopes to medical air
service to northeastern B.C. (Photo courtesy of HEROS)


 

Adds a determined Spring: “We’re moving ahead and sometimes as the world unfolds things work out.” The initial plan was to purchase a new Eurocopter EC-135 for the project, but that would have resulted in taking delivery of the new aircraft at the end of 2013, pushing the operational debut into 2014. Fortune smiled on Spring when a EC-135 became available for purchase in B.C. when realignment of a company left the aircraft as surplus.

“The last thing I wanted to do was bring a helicopter into the fleet in the middle of a Canadian winter and run night ops with it,” he says. Bringing the new (used) aircraft on line now allows training and familiarization over the summer, though as Spring chuckles, “the irony is that we can’t do our NVG training until July when there’s no night here, only about two and a half hours of just twilight. We’ve got our cockpit retrofit, our NVG goggles, our training and our management of change is all contracted now. The first pilots are in training now, getting their 135 type endorsements. We had a really good response to the posting and we didn’t want to lose those people, which is another good reason to pull the trigger now.”

With a cruise speed of 160 miles per hour and range of 635 kilometres, the EC-135 can accommodate two patients in air ambulance configuration. Spring describes this as not simply an air ambulance, but a 24/7 all-weather aircraft that will provide emergency response to the northeast region of Alberta. To support a variety of missions, the aircraft will be equipped with dual pilot IFR, a rescue hoist and lightweight medical interior. The compact footprint of the EC-135 coupled with the high endurance and extended range enables this helicopter to perform a full range of mission requirements.

“We’re calling this an emergency response system,” Spring says. “I don’t care if it’s a lost hiker or the RCMP need to move their personnel in an emergency, or if we use it to respond to a pipeline rupture in the middle of the wilderness that cannot be accessed by ground. We will respond to everything, but medical will take priority over all other calls. The oil companies were very interested to know if we could respond to a pipeline incident at night. They’re asking if we have thermal imaging. Yes, we can do that, and now they are really interested.”


Searching for a HERO

In Prince George, B.C., Northern B.C. Helicopter Emergency Rescue Operations Society (HEROS – www.nbcheros.org) is working to bring a dedicated medical helicopter to Prince George and northeastern B.C. Located at the geographical centre of the province, 600 kilometres north of Vancouver, Prince George is the gateway to northern B.C. and the booming oil and gas development in B.C.’s Peace River country.

Steve Flynn is currently acting in an advisory capacity helping HEROS develop a business plan and financial model, which are now complete and at the board level for final approval. The founder and original owner of Blackcomb Helicopters in Whistler, Flynn was born and raised in Prince George. He sold Blackcomb in 2006 and stayed on as general manager through the 2010 Olympics. In his time at Blackcomb, he served as a director of the Air Rescue Association for two years and spent two terms as a director with the Helicopter Association of Canada. During the Olympics, Blackcomb provided helicopter support to all the Olympic sites in Whistler and the Callaghan Valley; and over the years, Blackcomb has been largest casual-hire service provider to B#ffff33C Ambulance.

Flynn describes the HEROS business model as a non-profit partnership with the provincial and federal governments, which is different than the for-profit partnership model that exists in the province today. He maintains it and gives far greater value to the province in terms cost for service delivery.

HWY-63House-River  
Paul Spring has operated Phoenix Heli-Flight in Fort McMurray since 1982, providing ad hoc air ambulance service to the local regional district for more than 20 years. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Heli-Flight)


 

“We’re hoping initially for a 50 per cent provincial and federal government funded and 50 per cent donations funded model, and then as the donations program matures, eventually get to 25 per cent government funded and 75 per cent donations funded model similar to where STARS is now,” he says. “We’ve had preliminary discussions with all levels of government – federal, provincial, local governments – and we’ve had a very positive response. We’re in preliminary discussions with BCAS, Northern Health and the medical community to integrate this service into the existing systems, again with very positive response. We’ve had very positive response everywhere we’ve gone.”

The economy of northern B.C. is a major driver for the province and was the focus of intense scrutiny during the recent provincial election. As Flynn says, “the north is busy now and it’s getting busier. Mining, forestry, oil and gas, pipelines are very active in the north. There’s a lot of activity in the north, it’s anticipated that there will be more than $35 billion worth
of major projects both planned and underway over the next
several years.”

Northern B.C. is in a good position to lead the province’s economic future. Over the next 10 years, the value of northern projects is estimated to increase to $64 billion, which means thousands of additional people working and living in the northern remote areas of B.C. that will demand and deserve a dedicated air ambulance service, Flynn contends.

HEROS hasn’t decided on a particular helicopter yet, as Flynn says they want to do that in consultation with BC Ambulance. “The criteria for the platform will be its size, capable of carrying two patients, speed and range,” Flynn notes. “Because of the vast distances, speed and range will be the critical factors. We’re looking at a number of manufacturers; we just haven’t gotten there yet. Single-engine (OEI) performance will be a huge factor as well as we want to be able to go into the most demanding heli-pads, and to do that, you’ve got to have good single-engine performance. That will be a big factor in determining which aircraft we choose.”

HEROS is simply trying to improve the services that already exist in the region notes Flynn. “We’re just trying to enhance the service that exists today; we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he says. “People want to know more and want to know how they can help. Some people resist change, but change is the only real constant in life.”


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