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Wyoming Residents Question Air Ambulance’s Safety and Noise

CHEYENNE - The program director of an air ambulance service said its pilots get extensive training, follow strict safety procedures and often fly over heavily populated areas.

Jana Williams, program director of AirLife Denver, met Tuesday with a few residents, most of whom live near Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.

They came to the meeting because AirLife will station a helicopter ambulance in Cheyenne, perhaps as early as February 2012.

The Bell 407 helicopter will take off and land from the hospital's helipad, located several stories above ground.

The helicopter will be based in Cheyenne full time, housed at Sky Harbor, the fixed-base operator business at Cheyenne Regional Airport.

The helicopter will have its own full-time mechanic stationed here.

The Bell is the quietest helicopter, Williams said. Its use will reduce noise for neighbors.

A couple of CRMC neighbors said the helicopter will create safety and noise concerns. Others did not object and said it would save lives.

"I don't like the idea," said Jeanne Tucker, who lives a block from the hospital. She called it a hazard.

"The bottom line is it adds another element of danger. No matter how you cut it, accidents happen. When it happens, what are you going to say? Oops?"

Williams said pilots practice over and over and take a great deal of training. They are experienced in mountain flying. Many have extensive military training in combat areas.

"We spend a great deal of energy on safety," Williams said of AirLife Denver. Its pilots must have at least 3,000 hours of flying medical ambulances. Most average 6,000 to 7,000 hours.

AirLife helicopters have night vision goggles on board. The aircraft has equipment to keep it from striking wires and uses NextRad weather radios. It also has a terrain awareness system.

The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't require half the safety equipment on board, Williams said.

Sunny Kaste is a registered nurse who lives near the hospital. "All I can think of is we're saving someone's life," she said of the air ambulance.

CRMC partnered with HCA-HealthOne - the company that operates AirLife Denver - to provide air ambulance service in southern Wyoming, northern Colorado and western Nebraska.

AirLife Denver received the program of the year award for 2010-11 from the Association of Air Medical Services.

During its 28 years of operation, one crash occurred on Dec. 14, 1997. Four people died.

Hospital neighbor Jan Nelson-Schroll said having a helicopter may pressure its use even if patients didn't need it.

AirLife doesn't have a quota, according to Williams. Only patients who really need the air ambulance will get it, she said.

The air ambulance can reach patients in rural areas and get help to patients faster.

Pilots won't fly when it's too windy. "They don't take chances," Williams said.

The contract allows CRMC access to AirLife Denver's two Lear Jet 31s. The jets travel at 500 mph and can fly in bad weather, Williams said.

Tracy Garcia, director of trauma services at CRMC, said the helicopter gives the hospital the luxury of quicker access to patients.
 



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