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Canadian Province Hopes to Convert Plane to Air Ambulance; Doubles Pilots on all Medical Flights

air medical prop planeAn interesting story out of Canada this week has picked up buzz in the United States.

The province of Saskatchewan is rushing to quickly retrofit an old government executive plane into a third air ambulance. Coinciding with this, they are now mandating that two pilots be required on all air ambulance flights by the end of the year.

Following a small accident after an otherwise successful landing earlier this month, that caused a plane’s landing gear to hit deep snow and veer off the Maple Creek Airport runway into a window at 45mph (no patients were on board at the time – the pilot and two passengers were okay, only the nose and propeller were damaged), Saskatchewan has been left with only 2 air ambulances to cover the entire province – that’s over 227,000 square miles.

Repairs to the ambulance have been slowed by the fact that the plane cannot be flown to a repair facility. The repairs are estimated to take up to 3 months and cost over $500,000 CAD (slightly more than $500,000 USD).

Unfortunately, the whole province is feeling the void left by the single out of commission airplane. Its fleet of three air ambulances transported a total of 1,845 patients last year.

Luckily, conversion of the government plane is expected to be completed very soon. “The converted executive aircraft will transport patients who require medical care,” said a spokesman for the health ministry in a news release. The older aircraft will be retrofitted with the stretcher system from the out of commission aircraft.

In the meantime, the province has partnerships in place that will allow them to seek help from other providers to cover any gaps.

As a result of this situation, efforts begun in 2009 to double the number of pilots on all air ambulance flights have suddenly picked up speed. Saskatchewan is currently the only province that requires just one pilot in an air ambulance.

“Two sets of eyes and two sets of hands and two people watching is much better than one,” said Dwain Lingenfelter, leader of the Saskatchewan NDP party, who referenced a report done for Saskatchewan Health calling for two pilots to be used. “What the report says is having one pilot versus two increases the potential for accidents by a factor of 1.5, and they say it’s just not the way to manage an air ambulance.”

This move to increase the number of pilots on each flight would result in a total of twelve new hired air ambulance pilots, costing one million dollars per year to the province’s budget.

“[Saskatchewan's] government has a lot of money, and they’re spending it on the aircraft anyway fixing it,” said Lingenfelter. “Why not spend that money before the accidents happen by putting two pilots in place?”

Air ambulance service in Saskatchewan is a primary concern of the current provincial government.

In 2010, the government mentioned the possibility of augmenting their air ambulance coverage with helicopter ambulance service. The Premier, Brad Wall, said last October that the government was working with the Alberta-based Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service (STARS) program on a potential plan. Only in the last week, however, has much action taken place.

UPDATE January 18th, 2011:

According to the Winnipeg Free Press, it will still be a while before any emergency medical helicopters will make their way into the fleet. According to the legislator in charge of getting the program going, the STARS air ambulance program will not take off until 2010.

The emergency helicopters are intended to augment the fixed-wing air ambulance fleet and will focus more on trauma response outside of city centers. Helipads will have to be built on top of the province’s major hospitals, such as the General Hospital in Regina, to support the new aircraft additions.

The STARS program will cost up to $18 million a year to run. Between $6 and $8 million is expected to be raised by the private sector through fundraising initiatives, with the rest of the burden falling on the government.

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