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STARS – Alberta’s Air Ambulance

Raising the bar


October 15, 2007
By Mark McWhirter

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winch3Alberta’s Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society has changed significantly from its humble origins only 22 years ago. Gone are the days of a single-room office and the challenge of building an air ambulance service that was unique and unprecedented. Today, STARS sets the bar for rotary-wing air ambulance providers in Canada. What makes this even more impressive is that STARS operates as a non-profit charitable organization.

STARS has grown into a successful air ambulance program supported by the people it serves. “We captured the imagination of Albertans,” said Dr. Gregory Powell, founder, CEO and president. STARS has consistently shifted its thinking to meet the needs of changing demographic and geographic elements.

In 1985 the Lions Air Service was formed by a group of concerned medical professions because Alberta’s death rate due to trauma was 50% higher than in other provinces. Much of this was due to a sprawling population and a lack of existing rotary-wing air ambulance service for rural areas. A single helicopter was acquired to start operations from a Calgary base. The name would soon change to STARS, as the air ambulance became incorporated as a non-profit society. Following the success of the Calgary-based machine, an Edmonton base was opened in 1991 to better serve the needs of central Alberta.

STARS achieved a significant milestone in 2002 when it flew its 10,000th mission, only 17 years after its inception. STARS has grown to meet the ongoing and increasing need for air ambulance service as Alberta’s population continues to grow. Grande Prairie was added as a new operations base in late 2006, and this year it became operational 24/7. The expansion into Grande Prairie was largely driven by Alberta’s booming resource sector and the stable economy. The city is a local hub for oil and gas, transportation and forestry.

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STARS is unique in that it is not driven by profit but is motivated to save lives. Expansion decisions are made when there is a legitimate need and the current infrastructure is not suitable for public safety. Although Alberta’s residents are largely centralized in Calgary and Edmonton, the remaining portion is dispersed over a large region. The scope of operations currently covers over 90% of Alberta’s population plus portions of northeastern and southeastern British Columbia. In 2006, STARS flew 1,183 missions to 189 communities in the two provinces.

The fleet has grown from a single helicopter to five Eurocopter BK117s – one based in each of Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie while another acts as a spare between the bases and the fifth is undergoing heavy overhaul in Calgary. The BK117 is a highly sought-after helicopter in its niche role as a rugged air ambulance. This is due to its high-performance, all-weather capabilities and relatively low operating costs. Other benefits include a high rotor and rear clamshell doors. The helicopters are configured with sophisticated medical equipment for one patient, or two if necessary.

Despite the positive attributes of the BK-117, the need for a faster and longer-range helicopter has arisen due to changing population and demographic trends. STARS has ordered two AgustaWestland AW139s which are scheduled to start on the production line in mid-2008. The AW139 is a medium de-iced light twin, which offers a higher cruise speed and longer range than the existing BK117. The two new helicopters are due to enter service in late 2008, after comprehensive training of the flight crew and flight medics. The helicopter’s medical int-erior will be designed for two patients, with a provision for three if needed.

The most important feature of the AW139 is its increased range and cruising speed which ultimately allows STARS to save more lives in a larger region. The new helicopter’s range will extend the service area to include Fort McMurray and the Alberta oilsands.

Purchase of the new helicopters was largely funded through the Vision Critical Campaign as a one-time fundraising drive. The VCC’s success was no surprise as the two helicopters were ordered shortly thereafter, further proving the public’s embrace of leading-edge medical care.

Future plans of STARS are largely dependent upon the changing needs of Albertans. To expand into other areas, there must be evidence to show that adequate service is not in place, and there is the ability to utilize the full capacity of the operation. Another challenge is that health care providers are not necessarily growing at the rate of population. This also leads to centralized patient facilities and an increase in patient transfers to these facilities.

STARS has always embraced technology in all its forms, whether medical or aerospace. For instance, STARS was the first civilian operator in Canada to utilize night vision goggles, allowing patients to be found faster. Another example of technological embrace is the patient simulator, which allows first responders to practise and refresh their skills on a life-like simulator.

The continued success of STARS is largely due to the tremendous community support that has been evident from the beginning. A broad support base exists among rural and urban Albertans who care that a sophisticated air ambulance is available to them. There is also a significant amount of corporate support, including from oil and gas companies that count on STARS to reach remote worksite accidents. The Emergency Link Centre allows companies to register information and locations of remote sites, so they can be quickly accessed by air.


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