Emergency service adds new helicopter to its fleet
STARS offers emergency personnel updated information session
The well-known STARS Air Ambulance service was in St. Paul on Feb. 13 to offer a special training information session with local firefighters, emergency medical technicians and police officers, along with updating them on the newest STARS helicopter.
STARS has been servicing Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba with air ambulance services since 1985 and undertakes between 1,400 and 1,600 missions each year across Alberta out of its three bases in Grande Prairie, Calgary and Edmonton.
While STARS Edmonton is now located at the International Airport, the recent decision by the Minister of Health to redirect patients transferred by fixed-wing aircraft to the International Airport rather than the City Centre Airport only affects them a small amount, said Ryan O’Meara of Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) Air Ambulance, who conducted the meeting in St. Paul.
“As of Oct. 5, we flipped the switch and we went live at the International Airport,” said O’Meara, adding, “We’re still going to be landing at the hospitals, so it really doesn’t affect us as much as it affects the planes.”
STARS recently extended its Edmonton fleet to two helicopters. While it was initially using only the BK 117 helicopter, which has a cruising speed of 225 km/h and a range of 450 km, the new AW 139 boasts a cruising speed of 280 km/h and a range of 670 km. Both the BK 117 and the AW 139 are capable of hot loading patients, which means arriving at the scene and departing with the patient without ever shutting down the aircraft.
“The AW139 is going to be the frontline aircraft,” O’Meara said. “It goes faster, it flies further.”
While the BK 117 can hold two patients, there is not enough room to give STARS’ medical crew access to the entirety of each patient’s body. The AW 139 is a much larger aircraft and has the space to accommodate two patients with enough space for medical crews to assist each patient individually.
“We can treat two critical patients much more easily (in the AW 139) because we’ve got the room to work, we can walk around our patients,” O’Meara said. “We don’t lose access to both the patients’ bodies head to toe when we load two.”
Another big difference between the two helicopters is that the BK117 lands on skids, while the AW139 has wheels, which allows for a wider range of landing capabilities.
O’Meara said in his presentation that local emergency crews can request STARS for the use of specialty units, or in the event of multiple casualty incidents, inter-facility transport, or incidents involving major trauma.
“We come into play when you have a time-critical patient or a time-critical situation whereas you have to get somebody from the situation they’re in to somewhere else really quickly,” O’Meara said. “We want to make sure we bring the best asset to the patient that we possibly can.”
In the case of search and rescue, STARS can also be requested to aid in the search at any time of day, as pilots are equipped with night vision goggles. However, STARS helicopters do not have hoist systems and as such cannot be used for immediate rescue situations.
In the event of an incident that may require STARS air ambulance, it is requested that local emergency crews send STARS a pre-alert to inform the team that their services may be needed. Since STARS crews have an eight-to-10 minute startup time, pre-alert calls are very important.
“Early in the process, have us involved,” O’Meara said. “The quicker we get pre-alerted the quicker the crew wraps their head around what they’re going to need.”
O’Meara noted that pre-alerts can be sent in the event of incidents such as prolonged extrication, motor vehicle collisions with associated fatalities or persons ejected from their vehicles, falls from more than three metres, critical burns, near drowning, amputations or incidents involving difficult access for ground EMS.
“The earlier you bring us in on it, the earlier we can be there,” he said.
In the event that STARS are called to the scene, local emergency crews are in charge of selecting and setting up an emergency landing zone. Landing zones should be 36 square metres on level ground. The corners of landing zones should be clearly marked with blinking LED lights or weighted pylons.
Since STARS helicopters can kick up a lot of debris, they arrive to every scene downwind, and encourage landing zones with little dust or debris in the area. The only instance where a STARS helicopter will arrive on the scene upwind is in the event of a situation involving hazardous materials.
It is the job of the local emergency crews to ensure that a STARS helicopter has a safe landing zone, free from hazards such as power lines, tall buildings or structures, bystanders, traffic and wildlife. If a pilot feels the landing zone is not completely safe, it will communicate the issue with ground crews and wait for another opportunity to land.
“Power lines are the number one hazard. They’re darn-near impossible to see from the air because they have such a narrow cross-section,” O’Meara said. “If a pilot sees wires, they’re probably too close,”
O’Meara said that while STARS will try to be available whenever its services are required, there are circumstances that will prevent the helicopter from being able to operate such as poor weather conditions and visibility, other calls, mechanical malfunctions, or if the incident is deemed not medically necessary.
St. Paul Fire Chief Trevor Kotowich, who was in attendance at the meeting, said that while many of those present at the session have already received STARS training, it was “an important refresher given the introduction of the new helicopter.”
I think what it means for the community that we serve is that it’s going to be an enhanced service to the individuals that require this because of the flight capabilities now,” Kotowich said. “On average we land STARS probably four to five times per year on a scene, so to be able to do this training is a good little refresher.”
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