EHS LifeFlight helicopter grounded at Halifax and Digby hospitals
Chopper doesn't have certification level now required by Transport Canada to land at certain helipads
The helicopter that transports some of Nova Scotia's most critically ill and injured patients to hospital has been prohibited by Transport Canada from landing on helipads at the QEII Health Sciences Centre, IWK Health Centre and the Digby General Hospital.
The Department of Health said Friday that Transport Canada informed the company that operates EHS LifeFlight on April 1 it would no longer be allowed to land at helipads located near densely populated areas in Halifax and Digby.
The change was effective immediately, with no grace period to bring the helicopter into compliance.
Health Minister Leo Glavine said the order caught him and others completely off guard.
"This is exactly what they heard on very, very short notice that the compliance was necessary and they started the ball rolling immediately on the identification of what the new helicopter specs would require," he said.
The helicopter is now landing in Halifax at a Transport Canada certified helipad near the Point Pleasant Park parking lot. Since the beginning of April, there have been 28 landings there.
The 12 Wing Shearwater air base on the other side of Halifax Harbour is a backup option.
In Digby, it is landing at the nearby airport. Patients are then taken by ambulance to hospital.
Colin Flynn, program manager for EHS LifeFlight, said there have been no reports of adverse affects on patients due to the additional transport time.
New helicopter needed
The Health Department said the current EHS LifeFlight helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76A, was manufactured in 1980 and recently passed its regular Transport Canada safety inspection.
But the chopper doesn't have the certification level now required by Transport Canada regulations to land at certain helipads.
"It's a safety regulation. This operation has proven it can perform these manoeuvres safely for the past 20 years," said Flynn.
"Nothing changed in the aircraft or helipads. We have standard operating procedures in place to safely operate in those environments. It is strictly a certification issue."
He said obtaining that necessary certification for the existing aircraft wouldn't be feasible since it would involve going back to the manufacturer.
Best case scenario, he said, is outfitting a new helicopter with medical equipment, a process that would take at least six months.
Flynn didn't know what that would cost. He said the province and Canadian Helicopters Limited, which operates the LifeFlight helicopter, are looking at options.
Launch of ground-transfer unit
The ruling has prompted EHS to launch a new mobile critical-care ground-transfer unit this week, months earlier than planned.
Much larger than a typical ambulance, the vehicle is outfitted with equipment such as ventilators and infusion pumps.
"It can be a neonatal unit in one instance and then look after any kind of trauma of an adult in the next instance," said Glavine. "And it will move the patient from the site at Point Pleasant Park to the [Halifax Infirmary] or the IWK.
"It's a little loss of time, but in terms of emergency care there is no interruption in the emergency care."
Flynn said the mobile unit will also be dispatched with a team when weather conditions are too poor for flying.
Here's the new mobile critical-care ground unit that transports people from life flights to hospital. ICU on wheels <a href="https://t.co/kQoRVvwPJF">pic.twitter.com/kQoRVvwPJF</a>—@elizmcmillan
Glavine said a search is already underway to buy two new helicopters, a replacement and backup, that will meet the Transport Canada requirements and be able to once again use the helipads.
"This is going to take a number of months and I would say we're probably in the range seven to nine months before everything is in place," said the minister.
The time is needed, not only to buy new equipment and to properly outfit the helicopters, but to retrain the crews.
Nova Scotia currently spends $3.6 million a year for LifeFlight service, but Glavine said that figure will need to change to reflect the cost of buying the new helicopters.
With files from Jean Laroche and Elizabeth McMillan