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STARS fleet will now have even greater coverage

May 30, 2012, Calgary - Alberta's STARS air ambulance fleet is expanding and will provide quicker response to accident scenes along Highway 63 and elsewhere in the province.


May 30, 2012
By The Calgary Herald

Topics

The non-profit emergency medical provider will soon
accept delivery of an AW139 helicopter that is faster, larger and covers
more area than the five aircraft in the STARS fleet.

It will be
based in Edmonton and accommodate flights to Fort McMurray, allowing
paramedics and nurses to more quickly reach injured patients along the
busy corridor to the oilsands.

It also has de-icing capabilities
that will increase the number of flights STARS can undertake in the
winter months. A second AW139 is expected to be operational in Calgary
in 2013.

The acquisition of the two aircraft was announced in
October 2008, but their arrival was delayed, first by the need to
reconfigure the larger medical interior that will allow treatment of two
patients, then by a desire to obtain the newest model for its de-icing
capabilities.

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Cam Heke, the manager of media relations for STARS,
said the first AW139 helicopter is expected to reach its operations base
in Calgary this summer, where it will be refitted to provide critical
care facilities.

The new chopper could be ready for flights from Edmonton beginning in late fall.

At
present, Alberta's Shock Trauma Rescue Society employs five Eurocopter
BK-117s, which are smaller, about 25 per cent slower than the AW139s and
have a travel range of about 250 kilometres. That means the BK117s must
be refuelled when responding to an accident at the upper end of Highway
63.

In recent years, a number of serious crashes have occurred
along a remote stretch of highway between Wandering River and Mariana
Lake, 100 km south of Fort McMurray. In the last six years, about 50
people have died in head-on collisions on Highway 63, while the mostly
two-lane road has claimed at least 149 fatalities since 1990.

The
acquisition by STARS will help alleviate the pressure on Phoenix
Heli-Flight, the private firm from Fort McMurray that has handled most
emergency calls in the region for years. A charter company that also
does work in forestry and the oilpatch, Phoenix Heli-Flight has five
helicopters that have been customized for rescue operations.

"At
times it is pretty up close and personal," said Paul Spring, who founded
Phoenix Heli-Flight in 1990. "We have people who are bleeding and
screaming right beside us."

Spring said he branched out into emergency services because he felt he had a moral obligation to help.

"We
have the equipment and we have the skills, so why would we not do it?"
Spring said. "If it was my friend or cousin or son, I would want someone
to be there for them. If we didn't do it and somebody died, I would
have felt terrible. So we stepped up to the challenge."

Paid on a
per-call basis by the City of Fort McMurray, Spring and his team of 13
pilots handle a variety of calls, including highway crashes, off-road
mishaps, chainsaw accidents and search-and-rescue missions.

"Some
of the stuff we go to, they need a small helicopter with bush-pilot
skills," he said. "Once, we had to land in the muskeg and walk a mile."

Health-care
providers in the region have been lobbying government in hope of
getting funding for improved services, including a new helicopter pad at
the local hospital. The helipad at the Northern Lights Regional Health
Centre has not been operational for years.

"We just keep working hard and producing oil up here, so nobody (in government) cares about it," Spring said.

The
STARS 2011 operating budget was $31.5 million and $6.4 million, or
about 20 per cent, came from the Alberta government. The remainder comes
from public and corporate donations and a successful lottery that
raised $10 million last year and is sold out this year.

STARS was founded in Calgary in 1985, opened in Edmonton in 1991 and Grande Prairie in 2006.

It
launched operations in Regina in April and Winnipeg in February of this
year with BK117s and will begin flying out of Saskatoon next year. The
annual budget for the Winnipeg base is about $10 million.

Since 1985, STARS has flown about 21,000 missions. Within Alberta, its air ambulances have made 1,655 flights in the last year.

While
helicopter access in the province's northeast region is on the verge of
increasing, other service providers are waiting for the government to
announce the results of a study on emergency services on all provincial
highways.

When volunteer firefighters in Wandering River stopped
attending accident scenes on Highway 63 in 2010, it created a ripple
effect down the corridor. To the south, firefighters in Plamondon, Boyle
and Grassland were pressed into extra duty to cover the geographical
gap on an interim basis, perhaps for three or four months, but they are
still on the job.

"It's a handful," said Mel Peterson, chief of
the 19member Grassland department. "You can't go out on the highway
picking up pieces and bodies and not have it tax you. But it's what we
do. That's how we help our community."

Athabasca County Reeve
David Yurdiga said council came up with an interim solution that would
relieve the pressure on those volunteers. He said council set aside
$500,000 last year to fund a four-person crew of first responders based
in a former Sustainable Resources Development building in Wandering
River. The province said it would contribute $800,000 through Municipal
Affairs and Culture and Community Spirit ministries.

But before the crew could be hired, government wanted a study on the state of emergency services on provincial highways.

Transportation
Minister Ric McIver is reviewing that report from Transitional
Solutions Inc., a consulting firm. Meanwhile, the four-member crew still
hasn't been hired and response times are growing as firefighters travel
north from Plamondon and Grassland.

"We don't want to see an hour response time or 45 minutes," said Yurdiga.

"I
met with the minister on Sunday. He said he is reviewing the report.
It's an indepth document and it's going to take time to get the gist of
it. The best hope is there will be funding of some nature to help
volunteer firefighters deal with accidents on that highway."


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