STARS moves newer, faster helicopter from Calgary to Edmonton, citing dropping donations

The AW-139 helicopter was purchased for $16 million after a successful fundraising campaign, but STARS says it can no longer afford to keep it in Calgary.

Group says it can't afford to keep the $16M helicopter in Calgary any longer

Calgary is losing its AW-139 helicopter to Edmonton as a cost-saving measure. The AW-139 can fly more than 50 km/h faster than the model that will remain, the BK-117. (Sean Currie/STARS)

STARS air ambulance is moving its newer, faster helicopter from Calgary to Edmonton.

The AW-139 — which cost $16 million — was purchased after a successful fundraising campaign, but STARS says it can no longer afford to keep it here.

"It's made our operation quite a bit more complicated and expensive," says Scott Young, a pilot for STARS and vice president of aviation.

Young is referring to the decision to house STARS' workhorse and original chopper, the BK-117, alongside the AW-139 at its base near the Calgary airport.

Scott Young, a pilot with STARS, says the addition of the AW-139 has made the Calgary operation more complicated and expensive. (Mike Spenrath/CBC)

The AW-139 was unveiled after much fanfare following a successful $26.5-million fundraising campaign.

Edmonton received its AW-139 in 2012, while Calgary's arrived the following year.

CBC News obtained an internal email outlining the changes to the fleet.

Mike Lamacchia, STARS vice president of operations for Alberta and Saskatchewan, told staff "we have decided to change the location of several of our helicopters in order to decrease operational risk and realize significant financial savings."

$500K in savings could be realized

Calgary will transition to a BK-117-only operation, effective Monday. Calgary will operate one BK-117 and will have a second available as a back up.

Calgary's AW-139 will move to Edmonton, which will continue to house both models.

"'We're estimating relocating this helicopter will save us in excess of $500,000 per year, every year," Young told CBC News.

There was a couple of factors behind the move, he said — including maintenance costs.

"One of the most significant is the reach that Edmonton has to the north that the AW-139 is helpful," said Young. 'It just gives us that access to the north."

STARS has been struggling to deal with a drop in donations and fundraising activities, which make up close to 80 per cent of its operating costs in Alberta.

"The current economic environment is impacting our fundraising revenues," said Jeff Quick, STARS chief financial officer, at the non-profit's annual general meeting in Grande Prairie last week.

'Not really a conversation about response times'

The AW-139 can travel 278 kilometres an hour, more than 50 kilometres an hour faster than the BK-117, reaching trauma patients quicker, but Alberta's chief paramedic says speed shouldn't be the main consideration.

"It's not really a conversation about response times; it's a conversation about care and the ability to deliver the same level of care, and that's really what they're going to be able to do," says Darren Sandbeck of Alberta Health Services EMS.    

Quality of care could suffer

The Open Arms Patient Advocacy Society disagrees with Sandbeck.

"Speed and response time for the type of serious, critical situations STARS uses this technology to address are essential to the delivery of quality care and ultimately, the impact on a patient's quality of life over time," said Angelica Martin, spokesperson for the society.

She says the decision to "step down to the BK-117" only looks at immediate costs and consequences.  

"We're looking at pinching pennies upfront while we're potentially hemorrhaging dollars on long-term health outcomes," said Martin.

Darren Sandbeck with EMS says the helipad upgrades costing $25 million were not a waste of money. (Evelyne Asselin/CBC)

Sandbeck also defended the province's decision to spend $25 million to upgrade hospital helipads across the province — money that was spent, in part, to accommodate the bigger AW-139's.

"None of it was a waste of money," Sandbeck said.

Helipads were upgraded at 13 sites, including hospitals or health centres in Banff, Brooks, Blairmore and the South Health Campus in Calgary.

Sandbeck says the helicopter landing pads "needed upgrades anyways."

Decision to be reviewed

Fred Horne, the health minister at the time, said "the planned improvements will better accommodate two new twin-engined AW-139 helicopters purchased by STARS air ambulance. The new choppers are faster and about four metres longer than the eight BK-117 aircraft that make up the rest of the STARS fleet," he said.

Those helipads can now accommodate the AW-139s, which will no longer be responding to calls in southern Alberta. 

The internal STARS memo says the decision regarding the fleet in Calgary will be reviewed. 

"We will evaluate the effects of the Calgary transition, modify our plans as necessary and ensure that base operations are normalized," Lamacchia wrote.