Air ambulance helicopter moved from St. John's, and no one told medical dispatchers

According to an internal Eastern Health email obtained by CBC News, medical dispatchers found out an air ambulance had been moved out of St. John’s only after they tried to task it to handle a recent critical-care transport call.

Internal Eastern Health email shows dispatchers found out when they tried to use chopper to move a patient

An Eastern Health internal email says the air ambulance helicopter was redeployed without notice to medical dispatchers. (CBC)

The air ambulance helicopter that is usually tasked to provide service to the Avalon, Burin and Bonavista Peninsulas was moved out of the region last week with no apparent notice to medical dispatchers, CBC News has learned.

Those dispatchers found out the helicopter had been redeployed away from St. John's only after they tried to co-ordinate a critical-care transport call.

That's according to an internal Eastern Health email obtained by CBC News.

"Please take note of this, as it will significantly impact our deployment and operational response with (rotor-wing) for the entire Eastern Health region," Corey Banks, the director of paramedicine and medical transport with the health authority, wrote in an email to dispatchers and medical flight specialists Wednesday afternoon.

Corey Banks, the director of paramedicine and medical transport at Eastern Health, said moving the helicopter would affect response time. (CBC)

According to that email, Department of Health officials confirmed that the helicopter — a Bell 407 owned by Universal Helicopters Limited, and contracted to carry out medical calls — was moved out of the region to do forestry-related work.

"At this time we are told the aircraft is to be gone for at least a month, however, [the Department of Health] is trying to get coverage re-established at YYT," Banks noted in the message.

The Department of Health declined to make anyone available for an interview.

Instead, the department sent an emailed statement saying the helicopter is currently in central Newfoundland "awaiting appropriate weather to return to the eastern region," and could be back by Friday or Saturday.

According to the statement, the helicopter "remains available to Eastern Health," and that has been now been "clarified."

As for the patient at the centre of the recent call, the department said there were other options including search and rescue helicopters and contractors, and "at no time was Eastern Health without air ambulance coverage." 

'Nobody made aware'

The internal email obtained by CBC News outlined a number of potential scenarios, including flying medical specialists to Gander to meet the helicopter to launch from there, and having the helicopter flown to St. John's from Gander to pick them up before carrying out a mission.

NAPE president Jerry Earle, a former paramedic, said that could present a problem.

"It will delay responses, maybe not significantly, but in health care, in critical calls, every minute counts," Earle told CBC News.

The dispatchers who send out ambulances — road, fixed-wing, and helicopter — are NAPE members.

NAPE president Jerry Earle says minutes count in a medical emergency. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

According to Earle, those dispatchers were unaware the helicopter had been redeployed, until they responded to the recent call for a critical-care transport from a rural area to the city.

"In this case, the single helicopter responsible for a significant part of the province had been taken out of the area and nobody made aware, including those responsible for dispatching it," Earle said.

The Association of Allied Health Professionals said the redeployment unnecessarily increased the health and safety risks for patients and the workers responsible for their in-flight care — workers who are represented by the AAHP.

"We believe this redeployment calls into question government's priority and commitment to ensuring the best emergency medical care possible for residents," AAHP executive director Pamela Toope said in an emailed statement.

About the Author

Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.