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New FAA Rules Seek to Improve Helicopter Air Ambulance Safety

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New Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) operational procedure rules addressing safety issues impacting the helicopter air ambulance industry are getting good marks from executives in the field, though they also say there’s still work to be done to make the business safer.

The FAA rules, issued Feb. 20, come after an extensive period of discussion between FAA officials and members of the air helicopter business to find ways to reduce the risk of using helicopters for medical transports. Word of the new rules comes after a string of incidents last year.

“I would say this is a significant step forward,” says Thomas Judge, executive director of LifeFlight of Maine. “I think there’s many of us who wish this could have come faster.”

The new rules require helicopter operators, including air medical ambulances, to operate with tighter flight rules, improved communications, better training, and additional on-board safety equipment, according to the FAA’s announcement. Helicopter operators will also be required to use stricter flying procedures in bad weather.

The FAA rules also call for operators to add flight data monitoring systems within four years, add terrain awareness and warning systems, institute preflight risk analysis, and to enhance procedures for flying at night or when landing in remote locations.

“This is a landmark rule for helicopter safety,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement. “These improvements will better prepare pilots and better equip helicopters, ensuring a higher level of safety for passengers and crew.”

Between 2011 and 2013 there were seven air ambulance accidents with 19 fatalities, according to the FAA report. Last October, three people were killed when an air medical chopper crashed in southwestern Tennessee, killing the pilot and two Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital employees. The accident shook the industry and raised further questions about operations everywhere.

“Safety is always the top priority of the air medical community and we appreciate the FAA’s commitment to this effort,” Rick Sherlock, chief executive officer of the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS), said in a statement.

He noted that many air medical helicopter operators have already invested in safety upgrades and will continue to do so.

“The release of the final rule is an important step forward that will bring needed clarity to the regulatory landscape and will allow the air medical community to confidently continue to invest in the most modern safety technologies and procedures,” Sherlock added.

As with many operators, the helicopter operations for New Jersey’s MONOC have already incorporated many of the safety initiatives within the FAA’s new rules, says John Visokay, Chief Flight Nurse/AMU Coordinator. The organization flies more than 300 air medical missions in New Jersey each year.

“Being conservative in this industry is the way to go,” Visokay says. “We’re there to help someone and provide an advanced level of care.”

Judge says the FAA rules are part of an ongoing collaborative process between the helicopter emergency services industry and the government organization. Some of the key elements of the new rules involve workload and environmental issues. Better understanding the procedures pilots are following and what part the weather plays in each mission will help with safety, he says. Likewise, flight data information will help everyone after a crash.

“There’s going to be some work that needs to be done, some interpretive work,” Judge says. “There’s obviously some people that are going to be going from great to neutral to this is going to cost me money.”

Like Judge, Visokay says the rules can’t account for every situation or every scenario.

“Rules are good to have in place. Unfortunately, even with some of the best rules in place, you’ll still have issues,” Visokay says.

“There is a lot of work to be done beyond this one rule,” Judge says. “We all ought to say this is a great step forward, but the work is far from done.”

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