B.C. air ambulances barred from landing at 7 hospitals

Air ambulance services to seven hospitals on the South Coast and Vancouver Island have been suspended and likely won't be restored for about two more days, according to the company that provides the service.

Helijet says it's a paperwork issue; Transport Canada suggests it's about safety

Air Ambulance services are still out at seven hospitals on the B.C. South Coast and Vancouver Island. The company that operates the service, Helijet, has applied for a temporary exemption. But Transport Canada has yet to issue one. (CBC)

Air ambulance services to seven hospitals on the South Coast and Vancouver Island have been suspended and likely won't be restored for about two more days, according to the company that provides the service.

The air ambulances have not landed since last Friday after Transport Canada informed Helijet, the carrier contracted to provide air ambulance services to several B.C hospitals, that it's not complying with federal landing regulations at some hospital landing pads.

As a result, Helijet withdrew its services from several hospitals including Vancouver General Hospital, Royal Columbian Hospital, Surrey Memorial Hospital, Nanaimo General and B.C. Children's Hospital.

Rick Hill, Helijet's vice president, commercial and business programs, described the problem as an "administrative" issue that it is addressing.

And it has applied to Transport Canada for a temporary exemption that will allow it to continue to land at so-called H-1 helipads, which have the most restrictive rules.

That exemption won't solve the issue, Hill said, but it will give Helijet time to sort out the matter with Transport Canada and the manufacturer.

The air ambulances are made in the U.S. by Sikorsky.

Helijet seeks temporary exemption

Hill said he expects to get the exemption in about 48 hours.

But in the meantime, seven B.C. hospitals don't have air ambulance services.

"This is not an optimal situation," said Jodi Jensen, chief operating officer for B.C. Emergency Health Services, 

"Our preference obviously is, when you have a seriously ill or injured patients, that you want to be able to transport them to the receiving facilities as quickly as possible."

Gayle Duteil, president of the B.C. Nurses Union, also expressed concern about the suspension of air ambulance services at some B.C. hospitals. 

The air ambulances are "a very major part of our patient transport system," Duteil said, adding, "but we also need to ensure that the patients and the staff are safe."

Transport Canada did not respond to an interview request. But a spokesperson said in an email that the issue is about the safety of air ambulance landing sites.

Sau Sau Liu said Transport Canada could not comment on Helijet's exemption application.

Jensen said with air ambulance services out at some hospitals, patients are flown to a nearby airport, then driven by ambulance to hospital. Paramedics trained to treat critically ill people are with the patients the whole time.

The landing issue for the Helijet air ambulances was first noted last spring by a routine Transport Canada inspection, Hill said.

Problem stems from performance manual: Helijet

He said the problem stems from an interpretation of the performance standards in the manufacturers manual.

That manual suggests the Sikorsky helicopters don't have the performance capacity demanded by Transport Canada to land at certain helipads, classified as H-1, which have the strictest standards because they are surrounded by other buildings among other things.. 

Hill said the Helijet helicopters do have the performance capacity, and it's working with Transport Canada to correct the error.

"It's really an administrative issue that we're out of sync, and therefore Transport (Canada) is saying: 'You're not in compliance with landing at these airports.'"

However, Jensen said the helicopters were barred from landing because they don't meet certain safety requirements outlined by Transport Canada.

In a statement, a Transport Canada spokesperson said the issue concerns safety.

"Recent Transport Canada inspections, discovered areas of non-compliance affecting operations at several hospital heliports, in particular helicopter performance and night operations," the statement said.