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Air Ambulances Agree to Protocol Upgrades

Air Ambulances Agree to Protocol Upgrades

Wreckage of the Guardian Air helicopter involved in a midair collision of two medical helicopters sits on a flatbed trailer in July 2008 for transportation to Phoenix and the just-completed NTSB investigation. (Arizona Fire Company)

The Arizona Daily Star via YellowBrix

March 22, 2010

ARIZONA – Seven air ambulance companies operating throughout Arizona have agreed to major changes in how pilots will communicate with each other as they approach Flagstaff Medical Center.

The changes include well-defined approach paths laid out miles before the hospital and a schedule for radio broadcasts on an assigned frequency intended for other pilots operating in the area to announce their exact location, estimated time of arrival and route being used.

The new protocols come slightly less than 20 months after the June 2008 mid-air collision of two medical helicopters that killed seven over the skies of Flagstaff.

Federal findings on the possible causes of the crash centered on communications protocols that either were not followed by dispatchers and pilots or that did not provide an adequate safety margin when two aircraft were approaching the hospital at roughly the same time.

But some operators worry about the lack of a backup plan. The protocols’ sole reliance on a single air-to-air frequency on a fixed aviation band radio does not take into account that topographical features in northern Arizona — including the Grand Canyon and various mountain ranges — might block radio signals.

For example, a pilot flying out of the Grand Canyon and approaching Flagstaff behind the San Francisco Peaks might be temporarily unable to communicate with other pilots, depending on his location, even though he could be in contact with his home dispatcher.

OUTGROWTH OF FEDERAL MEETINGS

The seven ambulance companies that have signed off on the new safety protocols are Yuma-based Care Flight Aviation, Arizona DPS, Native Air/Omniflight, Phoenix-based PHI Medical Helicopters, Tucson-based Med Trans, Page-based Classic Lifeguard and Air Methods.

Dennis McCall with the Air Methods Corporation (which provides air service for Flagstaff Medical Center’s Guardian Air) said the new protocols were an outgrowth of a series of meeting earlier this year that were requested by the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The two federal agencies announced in 2009 that they would take steps to improve medical helicopter safety protocols and ask various helicopter emergency medical service operators in Arizona to meet to discuss changes in safety protocols.

The NTSB investigated a total of nine fatal medical helicopter crashes in 2007 and 2008 nationwide that killed 35 people total. That figure includes the seven men who lost their lives when a Classic Lifeguard helicopter out of Page carrying a patient from the Grand Canyon and a Guardian Air helicopter transporting a patient from Winslow collided above McMillan Mesa in 2008 on final approach to FMC.

The FAA believes there are more than 840 medical helicopters operating in the United States.

UNRELATED TO LAWSUITS

In February, the group of air ambulance companies met to specifically make changes to both inbound and outbound traffic.

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