DENVER — Medical flight programs in Colorado already have embraced technology, like night-vision goggles and terrain-awareness warning systems, that federal officials are debating as part of a crackdown on the medical helicopter industry.
Throughout Colorado, medical transport companies say they are at the cutting edge of technology that, coupled with rigorous training for pilots and a culture that stresses safety first, should help reduce emergency medical service accidents and fatalities.
“These technologies are very relevant to being able to address the root-cause factors associated with many air medical helicopter accidents,” said Aaron Todd, CEO of Air Methods Corp, which provides medical transport aircraft in Colorado and 43 other states. “It is absolutely worth it.”
Medical flights are inherently risky because pilots fly at night in mountainous terrain and land in streets or on rooftops or in remote landing zones. On top of that, time is of the essence when transporting patients who are critically ill or injured.
There are about 840 emergency medical helicopters operating in the United States, with about half a dozen companies in Colorado. Last year was the deadliest on record, with 13 accidents and 29 deaths.
The last fatal crash in Colorado was in 2005 when a chopper from Tri-State Care Flight went down near Mancos in the southwest part of the state, killing its three-man crew.
“It had a big impact on the company, it really did,” said Charlie
Reid, Tri-State’s director of operations. “It brought the idea to light that everybody is mortal and anything can happen at any time, and let’s do as much as we can to bring everybody home safe every night.”
Tri-State now flies with night-vision goggles and conducts an expansive risk assessment before each flight. Pilots undergo quarterly, instead of annual, training, and crews practice different scenarios on a daily basis. If just one crew member isn’t comfortable with a flight, it is aborted.
“We overtrain our people if we do anything,” Reid said.
Add night vision, GPS equipment that warns pilots about terrain and systems that alert pilots to hazardous weather, and it’s a lot of what the National Transportation Safety Board is discussing this week in Washington.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Jana Williams, program director at AirLife Denver. “We don’t want to sit back and wait until somebody says you have to do this.”
Colorado’s medical flight companies also meet monthly to discuss best practices, and they have developed a “weather safe” system to share information when flights are declined or aborted.
Kathleen Mayer, program director for Flight for Life Colorado, said her fleet of two planes and four helicopters is being refurbished to add terrain-awareness and traffic-collision-avoidance technology.
At North Colorado Med Evac in Greeley, officials are trying to get a grant to connect Web cams to their system to better monitor weather conditions, said Daniel Beckle, program manager. Night vision is already a staple in his company’s two choppers.
Beckle, who admits he initially resisted night-vision goggles, now says he would never fly without them.
“It is literally the difference between night and day, better decision-making factors, better visibility. It’s just better all the way around,” Reid said. “You can see the jackrabbits. You can see the basic power poles. You can see the fence lines, where before that was nothing but a black hole.”