Replace patient transportation choppers, say health workers

Medical flight specialists in Newfoundland and Labrador are calling on the province to replace the helicopters used for patient transportation with larger ones.
A Bell 206 helicopter in Labrador. Vale's icebreaking bulk carrier MV Umiak I, used to transport ore from the Voisey's Bay Mine, is anchored in Anaktalak Bay in the background. (Wikipedia)

Medical flight specialists in Newfoundland and Labrador are calling on the province to replace the helicopters used for patient transportation with larger ones.

They say the current single-engine Universal Bell 206 helicopter – which cannot be used at night – is too small to provide patients with proper care.

The Association of Allied Health Professionals is voicing concerns on behalf of its members who operate the medical flight program.

"The [Bell 206’s] cabin space too small for all the necessary equipment; patient’s feet/stretcher extend from the fuselage into the cockpit; medically necessary equipment cannot be secured down and at times, must be placed on the patient; certain medical procedures cannot be performed while in the air because there is not enough room for the Medical Flight Specialist to safely perform procedures. The helicopter can only transport a patient 250 pounds or less," according to an AAHP news release.

"While the safety of patients is a major concern for our Medical Flight Specialists, AAHP is also concerned for the staff that operates in these medical emergencies."

The union's news release includes a list of problems that its members say required attention to clear the Universal Bell 206 helicopter for safe patient transport:

  • The Bell 206 does not have de-icing protection capabilities.
  • The Bell 206 does not provide AC electrical outlets in order to operate electrical equipment such as IV pump, ventilator, cardiac monitor, etc. These devises must be used on battery power only. This introduces the risk of power loss due to battery failure from extensive use (i.e. defibrillation; extended flight time.)
  • The stretcher system on the aircraft does not support a shoulder harness system for patient restraint and does not permit proper positioning of patients if required.
  • Oxygen and medical air cannot be carried in large cylinders, as there is no way to secure the cylinders.
  • Communications with the Medical Communications Centre at Eastern Health or with the on-call flight physician is limited due to access and function of radio systems and satellite telephone on board the aircraft.

The AAHP news release said the union has been working with Eastern Health and the provincial Department of Health and Community Services to have the safety issues addressed over the past few months "to no avail."

Sharon King, AAHP Executive Director is quoted in the release saying "it first came to our attention by our Medical Flight Specialists in late spring."

"We would like to discuss this matter in detail with the Minister of Health and Community Services however, we’ve been told we are unable to get a date until late February. We think this will be too late."

The union said the Health department has ordered that another helicopter – the Bell 407 —be retrofitted to address the safety problems.

"This will cost approximately $250,000 and the Bell 407 is only a few inches larger than the Bell 206. We think there may be another option. We think this is an ideal opportunity for government to call for an adequate helicopter – more suited to medical flights in our province," said the union.

It said the contract for helicopters for use in the Medical Flight Program is up in March 2012.

AAHP believes consideration should be given to a helicopter similar to those used in search and rescue and offshore.

The Bell 206 and the Bell 407 are both single engine/single pilot helicopters.

The military uses Cormorant helicopters for search and rescue operations. Sikorsky S-92A helicopters are used for transportation and search and rescue by the offshore oil industry. Those twin-engine helicopters are operated by a pilot and a co-pilot. 

The medical flight program has 12 staff trained as critical care nurses or advanced paramedics.