Report recommends STARS air ambulance be used province-wide, replacing regional services

A report from the provincial government is recommending replacing Wood Buffalo’s local HERO services, with the more widely used STARS service, in an effort to make rescue services more consistent across the province.

Wood Buffalo, Medicine Hat currently use local medevac services

Local HERO operates a helicopter ambulance service in most of Northern Alberta and in Wood Buffalo, one of Canada’s largest municipalities. (David Thurton/ CBC)

A new report from the provincial government recommends that Wood Buffalo's Local Helicopter Emergency Response Organization (HERO) air ambulance services be replaced with the more widely used STARS service, in an effort to make rescue services more consistent across the province. 

STARS air ambulance currently covers about 90 per cent of Alberta, with stations in Edmonton, Calgary and Grande Prairie. HERO covers northeastern Alberta from Fort McMurray. HALO covers southeastern Alberta from Medicine Hat. 

About 1,350 patients in Alberta are transported via helicopter per year. 

The report states that HERO's annual costs are approximately $3.5 million. Alberta Health Services contributes $1 million, the rest is covered by the municipality, donations and industry. 

Several other provinces have a single operator, including Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario. 

"The single operator model increases oversight and system stability," states the report. 

While HALO and HERO cover 4.3 per cent of the province, "neither organization currently provides dedicated advanced care and/or critical care EMS crew or equipment," according to the report. 

The report also recommends consolidating medevac services through the provincial EMS dispatch. 

The recommendation to have STARS provide all medevac services, includes the provincial government funding 50 per cent of the annual operating costs, instead of the 23 per cent it currently covers. 

Paul Spring, president of the Local HERO Foundation, said he supports the province putting in standards. But he doesn't know why other organisations wouldn't get an opportunity to bid on the contract.

"I don't really understand why something with a budget this large is being sole-sourced," said Spring. 

Spring said HERO is also doing work that can be very different from STARS. He said the majority of calls he responds to, HERO is the first one on the scene. 

"The people that we serve are at high risk of dying before they get to a hospital, not being transferred, high risk of dying from one medical facility to another one."

Spring said HERO is designed to meet the region's needs, adding the report doesn't recognize nuances; it only counts how many flights each organization makes. 

He said HERO uses firefighter-paramedics, who can help with medical issues as well as extractions. 

"I think it'd be really bad for our region if the HERO program shut down," said Spring. He noted all the board members are volunteers. 

Minister of health Tyler Shandro speaking in Fort McMurray at the rgand opening of a continuing care facility. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Health minister Tyler Shandro said the province will be consulting with HERO, HALO, AHS and STARS before proceeding with recommendations.

He said putting the contract out for tender was considered, but that would require the province to cover all of the funding. 

"I don't think it's in the best interest of taxpayers for us to say we're going to fund STARS 100 per cent." 

STARS chief operating officer Mike Lamacchia said he is grateful the government recognizes the high standard of care it provides and the organization is looking forward to the consultation process over the next few months. 

Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott said his community is not happy with the report. 

"We have a system that works right now and we want to see that system maintained," said Scott. 

He noted STARS doesn't currently serve the region and they can't fly in Wood Buffalo from another jurisdiction.  

Mayor Don Scott says the Local Hero Foundation works well and should stay in place. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

MLA Tany Yao also said he has some major concerns and will be writing to Shandro to ask him to disregard certain aspects of it. 

He commended HERO's response times and said it's cost-effective.