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Va. Air Ambulance Service Improves Following LifeEvac Move

DINWIDDIE, Va. -- In the nearly three years that the LifeEvac I helicopter crew has been based out of the Dinwiddie County Airport, the types of calls made for the service have changed slightly.

But what hasn't changed is the better response time that came with the move from Richmond International Airport.

"The pitfalls of being out here are very few," said Matt Payne, business development manager of LifeEvac. "It's quicker for us to get off the ground. We had to wait for certain jets to get out of a landing pattern [at the Richmond airport]. The only thing we compete with here are the birds in the sky."

In 2005, LifeEvac, an air ambulance service with three helicopter crews in Virginia, moved one of its crews from Richmond to the county to better serve rural residents who are far from major hospitals. LifeEvac I deals mainly with Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center.

LifeEvac II operates out of Stafford County and a third crew, LIfeEvac III, was recently added in the town of West Point in King William County to serve people in that section of Central Virginia, east of Richmond.

According to www.lifeevac.com, the coverage area for LifeEvac I is a 120-mile radius around Petersburg. Overall, the helicopters are usually limited to two hours of fuel or a distance of 100 miles, but flights include hospitals as far as Raleigh and Durham, N.C.

"Anything over that requires more pre-planning," Payne said.

Along with LifeEvac's physical expansion, market developments have helped the air ambulance industry absorb an increased number of calls, Payne said, that have gone beyond transporting victims of accidents and other trauma.

"You're seeing a lot more people flown with other medical origins than just trauma," he said.

Calls have increased due to people becoming more informed of the signs, symptoms and treatments of many medical conditions. An example is earlier responses for stroke victims, which are dependent on time for treatment.

"It's all about quality of life," Payne said. "The longer you're outside of tertiary care, the higher [the] chances you will have a lower quality of life."

LifeEvac now has two helicopters in Dinwiddie, one serving as a reserve, and has made other improvements to its facility, which used to be the terminal for the county airport. Improvements include the creation of sleeping quarters for the staff members, who work 24- hour shifts.

The helicopter is staffed by a pilot, flight nurse and paramedic team, sitting in close quarters in relation to the patient due to space constraints and to keep a watchful eye on the patient. The IFR EC-135 P2 helicopter is capable of traveling at 150 mph and carrying two patients.

The cramped spaces in the double-engined machines are equipped with almost as much equipment as an ambulance, flight nurse Ami Watkins said.

"Space is at a premium," she said.

The passenger compartment holds ventilation equipment for adults and children, 12-lead electrocardiogram machines and heart defibrillators. Crew members are prepared to handle any medical situation that may arise, including medical and traumatic scene response, critical care interfacility transports and high-risk obstetrical transports. They are trained in the specialty care of patients on bi-ventricular assist devices and left ventricular assist devices, as well those dependent on intra-aortic ballon pumps.

As for noise when the helicopter is in transit, Watkins said the ride is surprisingly quiet. Despite that, earplugs are given to patients and the crew uses headsets.

"For communication, we sometimes have to read lips," Watkins said.

Overall, Payne and Watkins said emergency medical service crews in Dinwiddie, Prince George and the surrounding area have made LifeEvac feel at home at the airport. Over the years, LifeEvac staff and members of area EMS squads have had training sessions together.

"It's been great," Watkins said. "Dinwiddie and Prince George have been excellent to work with."

Payne agreed, saying LifeEvac plans to use the airport as a base of operations for years to come.

"Our experience here at Dinwiddie airport has been amazing," he said. "I think this will be our home for a very long time."

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