Thunder Bay's Ornge air ambulance helicopter is unavailable to patients about a quarter of the time as pilots have been grounded for hundreds of hours over the past three months, CBC News has learned.
An Ornge pilot logbook obtained by CBC News had numerous entries like "no medics," "no nightshift," and "out of service" as it detailed reasons why — between July and September — the helicopter couldn't be dispatched during dozens of shifts.
Ornge has two planes and a helicopter in Thunder Bay — but only two paramedic crews to split among them.
An Ornge employee told CBC News that staff members are frustrated they are unable to respond to some emergency calls.
The employee — whose identity CBC News has agreed to keep confidential — said staff hear about situations that could have used helicopter assistance after the fact.
"I used to enjoy my workplace," the employee said. "And now ... I leave there a lot of times [and] it feels like I've been punched in the gut."
Interim head acknowledges problem
Ron McKerlie, interim head of Ornge, told CBC he acknowledges not having three paramedic crews for three aircraft is a problem.
"The helicopter really isn't much good if the paramedics that are at the base are all out," he said. "So ... [it] really makes sense ... to have ... dedicated paramedics for each of the three vehicles."
McKerlie said he has heard frustration from helicopter pilots in Thunder Bay.
"They want to fly," he said. "I'm sure they hear about calls or they know of situations where — if only they had paramedics at the base ready to go — they could have done something. In this case ... they don't have all the tools they need."
McKerlie said it's one of the issues he inherited when he took over leadership of Ornge earlier this year, but considers himself accountable for fixing it.
Ornge asking for funding
McKerlie noted the two planes are busiest, but the helicopter is needed to land in certain trauma situations, like highway collisions.
He said Ornge recently submitted a funding proposal to the Ontario Ministry of Health, which, if approved, will mean a paramedic crew can be dedicated to the helicopter.
"The helicopter is best utilized when you have two pilots and you have two paramedics and you can fly at a moment's notice," McKerlie said.
"[The system in Thunder Bay] was set up without a third line of paramedics. That has not been helpful to us."