Copters Fly New Path: Flight for Life Plans to Move its Operations Base to Waukesha County, Wis.


Scott Williams | | Thursday, October 11, 2007

Oct. 11--WAUKESHA -- Aiming to broaden its reach in an expanding region, the helicopter ambulance service Flight for Life announced Wednesday that it is relocating its base of operations to Waukesha County.

Since it was launched more than 20 years ago by a consortium of hospitals, Flight for Life has been based at Froedtert Hospital in Wauwatosa, the region s dominant trauma center.

But officials said the current industry trend is to locate such operations closer to the population being served, which increasingly means Waukesha County and other high-growth areas.

Flight for Life plans next year to relocate its Froedtert helicopter to Crites Field, an airport that is home mostly to corporate jets and other private aircraft. The Waukesha airport has no commercial airline service.

This just happens to be the perfect spot, Flight for Life program director Jim Singer said during a Wednesday news conference at Crites.

The move will allow Flight for Life to shorten its response times in Waukesha County and other outlying areas, while also expanding farther west into Jefferson County. The helicopter ambulance serves primarily a 50-mile radius.

Officials said they will continue refueling, training and other operations at Froedtert Hospital, which will remain the destination for most trauma patients.

The relocated base of operations reflects an emerging trend of government programs and other services shifting toward Milwaukee s booming suburbs, said Phil Evenson, executive director of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.

Citing a decentralization from Milwaukee that began years ago, Evenson said: As rooftops appear, services appear. Rooftops kind of start the development pattern.

Since the early 1980s, Waukesha County s population has grown about 35%, from 280,000 to 380,000.

Flight for Life representatives were joined at Wednesday s announcement by Waukesha County officials, who cheered the prospect of getting faster service on traffic accidents and other trauma cases for which regular vehicular ambulances are not fast enough.

Over the years, Flight for Life helicopters have been called out an average three to four times daily, or more than 1,000 times a year.

Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas pointed to the program as an example of the quality health care service that he said is available throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

This is a pre-eminent medical destination, Vrakas said.

Flight for Life currently has two helicopter ambulances, each capable of transporting two patients simultaneously at speeds reaching 150 mph. One helicopter is based at Froedtert and the other operates from a hospital in McHenry, Ill., where it will remain.

Officials said Wednesday that they recently purchased two new helicopters that are larger and more sophisticated. They said no decision had been made yet whether to retire the two current helicopters or expand the fleet to four.

William Hatcher, executive director of the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, which operates Flight for Life, said the Waukesha move has been under consideration for several months.

The regional medical center is a consortium of hospitals and other health care institutions, including Froedtert, which started the helicopter ambulance service in 1984.

Need to reposition

Hatcher said officials have been talking for more than a year about ways to improve and expand Flight for Life service in the region.

We needed to reposition ourselves, he said.

Officials decided to resettle among an estimated 200 private aircraft that now populate Crites Field. Located north of downtown Waukesha, the county-owned airport is perhaps best known for corporate fleets.

Flight for Life plans to sign a long-term lease with Waukesha County and build a 15,000-square-foot base of operations, at an estimated cost of $2 million. If all goes smoothly, the move could take place by early next summer. The facility will be staffed by 24 pilots, paramedics, dispatchers and other employees.

Crites Field general manager Keith Markano said Crites Field s air-traffic controllers are prepared to handle Flight for Life, and other pilots should not expect any operational changes.

It s just a good, natural fit, he said.

The county Airport Commission has endorsed the move, which still requires the Waukesha Common Council s approval.

City officials voiced initial enthusiasm for the project Wednesday, saying they expect the helicopters to steer clear of nearby residential areas.

Mayor Larry Nelson said he welcomed Flight for Life s new headquarters.

It makes much more sense for them to be located in Waukesha, Nelson said. They ll be in a much better position to respond. Being 30 seconds closer can mean the difference between life and death.

Darryl Enriquez of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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