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Uptick in Medical Helicopter Crashes Shines Spotlight on Safety

Issue 1 and Volume 39.

A rise in the number of fatal medical helicopter crashes in 2013 has many people in and outside of the industry looking for ways to make this critical part of the prehospital care system safer.

As of presstime, the latest crash occurred Oct. 22 when a Hospital Wing helicopter crashed in southwestern Tennessee, killing the pilot and two of Memphis’ Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital staffers. They were enroute to pick up a child suffering from renal failure.

“It’s kind of like a gut shot,” says Thomas Judge, executive director of LifeFlight of Maine. “You say, ‘Not again.’ Your heart goes out to the families involved and the organizations involved.”

This and other crashes, says Judge, are reminders of how risky the medical helicopter business can be.

“Our staff is very aware of these crashes,” he says. “As things happen, we pull our people together. You never completely have all of the information, but we remind ourselves that what we do has risks and that we have to be committed to each other and to an organization.”

The challenge facing the medical helicopter industry is that there doesn’t seem to be one simple cause for the number of crashes this year, which makes it difficult to prescribe one fix.

“There’s no trending here,” says Eileen Frazer, executive director of the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Services. “We can’t say there’s a bunch of weather accidents again.”

At the same time there’s been an uptick in fatal accidents, there’s also been a move to increase safety across the board. Pilots now have access to night vision goggles and there’s improved weather tracking and simulator training.

But, Judge says in some places the safety moves are slower than others. He points to a 2006 NTSB report that was followed by hearings that led to a series of recommendations—none of these have yet been codified.

Blair Beggan, director of communications for the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS), says the Helicopter Emergency Medical Emergency Services (HEMS) industry has a multi-level approach to help lower the accident rate.

“The HEMS industry has voluntarily invested hundreds of millions of dollars in operations and safety improvements such as night vision goggles, terrain alerts systems for helicopters, as well as climate control aircraft data monitoring systems and new restraint systems,” Beggan says.

The organization has also implemented “vigorous Safety Management Systems” and continues to maintain a variety of mechanisms to combat human error, notably with continuing education. And, Beggan says, the AAMS is supportive of heightened Federal Aviation Administration regulations for HEMS units.

The organization recently held a summit of key stakeholders that moved towards a consensus of measurable goals to improve safety.

While the industry works toward increased safety for a workplace with inherent risks, each crash brings extensive national attention to the field of HEMS.

“There’s no question when a medical helicopter goes down, it gets more attention,” says Judge.

The increased statistics may be behind the national media attention garnered by medical chopper crashes, compared with, say, the attention ground ambulance accidents garner. Although medical helicopters represent about 18% of the fleet of turbine helicopters in the country, they account for 59% of the fatal crashes, according to Judge.

Nationwide there are 900 medical helicopters in service, Frazer says.

LifeFlight of Maine operates two choppers that fly 1,400 missions each year.

“I know we can do this better,” Judge says. “So there’s a frustration. I know we can get to a better place.”

Frazier says the industry is doing everything it can to assure pilot and patient safety, but, like anything, humans come into play and occasionally make mistakes. To that end, she says, they’ve been looking at the impact of sleep deprivation and how scheduling affects pilot performance.

“People need to know the whole industry is very concerned and has been working very hard on this,” Frazer says. “It’s not something we take lightly. One program’s accident is all of our’s accident. We all look at this as part of a community. We take it seriously. We’re working hard to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
—Richard Huff, NREMT-B

QUICK TAKE: First Responders Fund Makes Donation in Honor of Boston Marathon Survivors

 First Responders Fund Makes Donation in Honor of Boston Marathon Survivors

Photo courtesy Spaulding Rehabilitation Center

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, the unions representing Boston police officers, EMTs and firefighters established the Boston First Responders Fund for the Victims of the Boston Marathon Terrorist Attack to support the survivors of the attacks.

Over the past few months, donations have been pouring in from a variety of sources, and on Nov. 13, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, which cared for 32 of the survivors, was presented with a check for $214,989 from the First Responders Fund.

As part of the check presentation, marathon survivors, Spaulding caregivers and first responders were reunited to share their stories and experiences. The donation will support Spaulding’s Comprehensive Rehab Fund, which was established following the Boston Marathon bombings as a way to support the survivors and ensure they have the tools they need to continue to improve. The Fund is available to cover the cost of medical care that’s not covered by insurance, equipment such as prosthetics and home modifications, as well as other costs important to the survivors’ recovery. The Fund will help the survivors and other people in the future recovering from similar injuries.

The Fund also supports important research into the long-term impact of rehabilitation care on people following severe traumatic injury, which will increase our understanding of how best to care for this unique patient population.