December 15, 2020 By Mark Nielsen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince George Citizen
A Prince George helicopter company is challenging a decision to award a $9-million contract to an out-of-town company to provide air ambulance service without going through a competitive bid process.
Kamloops-based Summit Helicopters Ltd. was awarded the contract on Nov. 27 to provide the service for 28 months, according to a notice of intent issued by the Provincial Health Services Authority.
In doing so, it said B.C. Emergency Health Services, which provides ambulance services in B.C., took the step without a competitive bid due to “reasons of urgency brought about by events unforeseeable.”
However, it also said that “once the critical nature of B.C.’s pandemic response permits, BCEHS plans to prepare and execute a competitive procurement to address the full aviation portfolio.”
It also invited vendors who wished to challenge the decision to submit a written objection. Prince George-based Yellowhead Helicopters Ltd. did so and, shortly afterwards, sent out its letter to local media.
In part, Yellowhead CEO Jacob Forman questioned the contract’s value, noting that YHL has been chartered to provide the service on an as-needed basis for less than $100,000 in flights in each of the last five years.
He also questioned the use of the type of helicopter Summit has deployed, a Bell 412EP, saying it does not have heated rotor blades, and so cannot fly at altitudes where the temperature is at freezing.
Forman also asked if Summit was chosen because they can fly at night or with instruments only. If that was the case, he said only a small percentage of contracted flights for BCEHS occur outside daylight hours.
He also said that during the last BCEHS procurement, also awarded to Summit, instrument flight capability and night vision goggles were listed as mandatory but time was given after the contract was award to acquire them and at taxpayer expense.
And Forman said that through an affiliate, YHL could have provided Airbus 332L Super Puma helicopters “in what would be a seamless start, with no need to rent space or to publish employment ads in competition with locally established companies.”
He said the Super Puma is 25 per cent faster than the Bell 412EP, has close to twice the range, twice the capacity for patients and heated blades as well as autopilot, “giving true all-weather capability.”
“Some hospital helipads may not have the capacity for the size or weight of the 332, but the same can be said of the 412EP and there are many workarounds with airports and ground ambulances available,” Forman said. “In fact, the vast majority of helicopter operations everywhere in B.C. do not use elevated rooftop pads, instead combining airports and road vehicles.”
With heli-skiing effectively on hold during the pandemic, Forman said YHL can provide half a dozen helicopters similar to the ones Summit is providing at the same price and over the same duration.
“BCEHS needs to rethink their requirements and the way they intend to spend our money,” Forman said. “Yes, we need a dedicated rotary wing air ambulance service headquartered in the Prince George Region. No, we do not need a non-local operator receiving a direct award from the BC Government and moving in next door while offering to hire our people.”
Prince George-Valemount MLA Shirley Bond said she wants to get some “clarity” regarding the reason for directly awarding the contract without a competitive bid. Whether the recent provincial election tightened the timeline to find a provider and forced BCHES to forgo a competitive bid was raised as a concern by Bond.
In a statement, BCEHS said the election “had no impact” on the decision.
“Summit Helicopters was awarded the contract as it met all of the conditions for rapid deployment of resources during the ongoing pandemic,” BCEHS said and reiterated that once the pandemic is over, it “plans to open a competitive procurement to address full air ambulance needs.”