Friday, October 17, 2008

Heliport Concerns Rise Again

In the wake of yesterday's helicopter crash in Aurora, IL that killed 4, the safety of having a heliport on top of the newly proposed Children's Memorial Hospital in the heart of downtown Chicago is being brought into sharp focus this morning:
""My feeling is this accident rate is epidemic," said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Investigators have just started looking into Wednesday's crash and have not reached conclusions on what factors played a role. But the accident put a new spotlight on a disturbing trend. Lax government regulation and fierce competition for customers have created a disincentive for helicopter transport companies to invest in advanced pilot training and safety equipment to protect flight crews, medical personnel and patients, the aviation authorities said.
The concerns for the safety of people in the highly congested downtown Chicago area have been voiced previously. The statistics are staggering:
The first step to improve safety on medical helicopters should be to immediately require two pilots on all medical helicopter flights to end a chain of accidents—15 so far this year, experts said. The safety board has called on the Federal Aviation Administration to implement reforms over the last decade, including a two-pilot requirement.


Like Wednesday night's crash, 90 of the 193 accidents occurred between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., a period that authorities call the "back side of the clock" when fatigue is often a mitigating factor. In addition, 47 of the accidents involved the helicopters hitting obstacles, according to the database, which is drawn from government and industry records.
In light of these data, the question now becomes what safety requirements will the FAA and City of Chicago impose for helicopters landing on rooftops in the highly congested downtown area?



Gary M. Levin said...

Helicopters are dangerous..I learned this in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam.
Many colleagues were invited to take daytrips in country to break up the boredom....Some were never bored again....they never came back.
However one must remember some of these are life-saving in terms of time. Otherwise take land.

And what about all those news choppers, and the police..they fly at night.

Patrick said...

There are so many holes in that cited story that it would take a week to Fisk it. They know absolutely nothing about the safety or training of the company involved (and I do). The company involved, and any air medical program worthy of the name, specifically isolates the pilots from medical decisions (fly vs no fly). Programs that would allow the "bush mentality" ought to be out of business. I personally vetoed several missions, as the flight medic, because of my (very basic) knowledge of aviation and weather.

The pilot and medical crew all have veto power regarding a flight, and all crew have safety responsibilities (looking out for obstacles, etc.)

Christine Negroni, quoted in that article, is a blithering idiot, based on the statement she made. I believe some rethinking of when to fly vs ground is in order, but a blanket statement about safety of the industry is absurd. I believe that patients in need of immediate therapy (interventional cardiology, acute stroke treatment, trauma) are prime candidates. Patients being flown distances for direct admission are a grey area that could stand some scrutiny.

I don't know the cause of the accident, and we may never know. God Bless them all.

Anonymous said...

So what would you suggest instead? Ambulances are involved in thousands of accidents every year. I can't start to imagine how terrible it would be to try to safely drive an Ambulance down Michigan Ave in rush hour, not to mention all of the jaywalking tourists and Chicago natives. The people who drive those ambulances are also overworked and underpaid. It is a great idea to implement helicopter transportation, but I also agree that training and staffing issues need to be addressed.

DrWes said...

Patrick and Nina-

You both make valid points, but there are limitations to helicopter flights that rarely are mentioned in articles about medivacs. I speak from my experience in the Navy while atationed at Bethesda and Paxtuxent River Naval Air Station working as an ER physician. I had several oportunities to fly with the Maryland State Police and Naval medivacs. Neither of these helicopters were properly equipped to monitor vital signs on the choppers, but when speed were of the essence, they had their advantages. I was always impressed by the caliber of the pilots I encountered. Each took their job seriously and had the utmost respect for weather challenges and safety concerns. All were professional. But I was always impressed that it took a significant amount of time for the chopper to arrive where needed compared to an ambulance (usually ambulances were more plentiful locally). Additionally, if a patient gets in trouble en route, there is no place for a chopper to stop en route, whereas an ambulance can detour to another hospital if necessary. Certainly there are pros and cons to the decision to use a helicopter for transportation and the particular circumstances in this case are not known. Nonetheless, serious review of instrumentation on board medivac helos needs to be assessed and protocols anhanced to provide the utmost safety for passengers and bystanders alike when a downtown locale is the destination.