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Shortage of paramedics leaves ORNGE helicopter idle

December 20, 2011  By The Toronto Star

Dec. 20, 2011, Thunder Bay, Ont. - The air ambulance helicopter at ORNGE’s Thunder Bay base was grounded hundreds of times this year because no paramedics were available for emergency flights.

“No medics again,” the helicopter pilot recorded in his flight log, listing a nine-hour span when the helicopter and its two pilots were forced to sit idle in a hanger, unable to answer emergency calls.

ORNGE, paid $150 million annually by Ontario, has a helicopter and two airplanes at its key northern base but only enough paramedics for two of the aircraft.

ORNGE insiders have told the Star the frequent removal of medics from the helicopter is risky because only a chopper can provide service if there is a road accident or injury in a remote area. ORNGE airplanes typically move patients from one hospital to another.

“Medics poached,” another chopper pilot wrote in the electronic log book in May, recording a seven-hour lapse in service.


ORNGE spokesman James MacDonald said paramedics are not “vehicle specific.”

He said the paramedics staff the vehicle most appropriate for a trip. ORNGE will not provide the Star with any information on specific emergency calls that may have come in when the helicopter was unavailable.

The Star has been unable to determine if emergency calls came in for the helicopter during the time it was listed as unavailable.

Helicopter log entries obtained by the Star show there were 237 times over 10 months between February and November 2011 that the Sikorsky air ambulance helicopter and its two pilots sat in Thunder Bay listed as out of service. Without paramedics the pilots are unable to pick up injured patients and must notify the Toronto command centre they are unavailable.

The pilot logs, filed to ORNGE’s communication centre in Toronto, reveal that over the 10 months the chopper was grounded a total of 1,300 hours or 47 days — as many as 28 hours in one case in September. The average time the chopper was unavailable was five hours.

ORNGE’s Thunder Bay “Transport Medicine Centre for Excellence” was opened in late 2010 with much fanfare, promising the “highest level of medical care” for Ontario’s northern residents. Sixty per cent of ORNGE’s flights are north of Sudbury. The union that represents the paramedics is concerned that ORNGE’s decision has or will affect patients.

Ron Smith, director of transportation for a unit of the Canadian Auto Workers representing ORNGE’s 170 paramedics, said he knew this was a problem but did not know the chopper was out of service so many times. Smith said that an extra team of paramedics should be based in Thunder Bay to ensure the helicopter is always staffed. “If someone needs the helicopter it will be for an emergency like an accident on a road or in the bush where a plane cannot land.”

“It’s also a waste of public money,” Smith said. “You have a helicopter and two pilots sitting there unable to do their jobs.”

To prepare this story the Star has spoken to a dozen ORNGE insiders. None of them can be identified because they have all been required to sign non-disclosure agreements and say that if they were named they would be fired and sued by the company. ORNGE spokesman MacDonald confirmed the existence of non-disclosure agreements and said that is part of their agreement with the province of Ontario and is in place to protect confidentiality of patients.

ORNGE spokesman MacDonald said last week that ORNGE places “paramedics on the most appropriate and efficient vehicle to meet the patients needs.” He said airplanes are often the better choice because they can fly longer than helicopters and in more adverse weather.

MacDonald emailed the Star Monday to cancel a scheduled interview with ORNGE’s president Chris Mazza, saying that “we are not satisfied that the Star intends to fairly and responsibly report on ORNGE.” MacDonald’s email came the day the Star published a story revealing that a group of ORNGE executives, including Mazza, work for a for-profit consulting company that has a $6.7 million contract to provide marketing services for AgustaWestland, the company that sold 10 helicopters to ORNGE for $120 million.

Later in the day Monday, MacDonald emailed a follow-up response regarding the Star’s earlier questions about Thunder Bay and the lack of paramedics for the helicopter.

“Your question describes a scenario that applies to all of our resources: if they already have a patient on board, then that aircraft — fixed or rotor — is unavailable for another call until the current patient is handed over to the hospital,” MacDonald wrote. “We believe the facts speak for themselves: our Thunder Bay crews have the ability to respond on either aircraft as appropriate; triage decisions are backed by transport medicine physicians; as a result of this system, we reached 57 per cent more patients from this base with the same funding. This clearly has had a positive impact on patient care in northwestern Ontario.”


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