We’ve Lost Too Many Lives’ in EMS Crashes

CHICAGO — Emergency medical services aircraft have been in nine fatal accidents in the last 12 months, killing 35 people — the highest number of fatalities since such flights began in the 1970s.

The grim toll has prompted the National Transportation Safety Board — which has been critical of EMS flight operations — to step up pressure on the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt safety measures the board wanted two years ago.

“The NTSB is extremely concerned with the EMS helicopter record,” said Robert Sumwalt, NTSB director. “We want the FAA to move forward with these recommendations. We’ve lost too many lives.”

The NTSB plans a three-day public hearing in February on EMS helicopter safety. At its Oct. 28 meeting, the NTSB will consider adding its EMS recommendations to its “most wanted list” of safety improvements.

In a 2006 study of 55 EMS accidents between 2002 and 2005, the NTSB identified the following problems:

– Less stringent requirements for operations conducted without patients on board.

– Lack of flight risk evaluation programs.

– Lack of consistent, comprehensive dispatch procedures.

– No requirement to use certain safety technologies, such as those that can warn when an obstacle is approaching.

The FAA takes the NTSB concerns seriously and is focusing on ways for EMS operators to reduce risk, according to FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette. But she said turning a recommendation into a regulation takes time.

It’s difficult to say why there are so many EMS crashes. Sumwalt said the operating environment is “challenging” — EMS pilots often go out at night and in bad weather. In some cases, they’re picking someone up off the highway.

The National EMS Pilots Association advocates the use of night vision goggles, currently used on only 25 percent of EMS helicopters. A survey by the group in May found that 82 percent of pilots want them. One pilot said he felt “virtually blind” without them.

Pilot Del Waugh, who died in Wednesday’s helicopter crash in Aurora, was not wearing the goggles. His outfit, Air Angels, has not purchased or trained in them, the FAA said.

The technology is expensive — $118,000 for equipment and training. Goggle supplies are also limited because so many are being used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Dawn Mancuso, executive director of the Association of Air Medical Services.

The need for EMS flights has exploded because complex equipment isn’t available in every hospital, and emergency rooms are closing down, so there’s more need to move patients quickly from one hospital to another, Mancuso said.

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