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Report: Air ambulance crashes rise to record levels




Monday, July 18, 2005; Posted: 1:29 a.m. EDT (05:29 GMT)


WASHINGTON (AP) -- Pilot errors, industry carelessness and poor government oversight have combined to drive the number of air ambulance crashes to record levels, USA Today reported.


Sixty people have died in 84 crashes since 2000 -- more than double the number of crashes during the previous five years, the newspaper said in Monday editions.


Its study found that more than 10 percent of the U.S. air ambulance helicopter fleet crashed during that time, a proportion that would have translated to 90 jetliner crashes if applied to commercial airlines.


About two-thirds of the fatal crashes occurred in poor visibility.


After reviewing hundreds of pages of documents and interviewing dozens of pilots, aviation experts, federal officials and executives with the companies that operate the flights, USA Today concluded that air ambulance companies and the Federal Aviation Administration have failed to impose safety requirements that might have saved lives.


It also cited a 2002 study in The Journal of Trauma that found helicopters were used "excessively" for patients who weren't severely injured.


But the newspaper also noted that industry leaders cite other studies to show that thousands of lives are saved each year by speedy flights to hospitals. It pointed out, as well, that pilots operate in challenging situations, such as having to land on hospital roofs and being dispatched on life-and-death missions to rural accident scenes despite darkness or bad weather.


"I don't know anybody in this industry who isn't dedicated to safety and dedicated to what we do," Ron Fergie, president of the National EMS Pilots Association, told USA Today.


"Most of the accidents will say 'pilot error.' It's not so simple, really," said Eileen Frazer, executive director of the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems, which conducts safety audits of air ambulance firms. "There are all sorts of extenuating circumstances."


Jim Ballough, who oversees the FAA's safety efforts, told the newspaper: "We take this very seriously."


"The public will see change," Ballough said.

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When I was in LA, a lot of chatter among pilots was about EMS. They have a problem that is multi-layered. EMS pilots in the US are "bottom rung". They're badly paid and overworked. Being an EMS pilot is second worst, after CFI. The aircraft aren't always suited to the mission, and they fly improvised IFR to unprepared LZs. Many of their accidents occur in urban areas where an ambulance could get the vic to the hospital faster than the helo could.


The way HMOs work in the US, the choice to send a helicopter rather than an ambulance is decided not by the gravity of the patient's condition, but by whether or not his HMO covers air medevac...

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I've heard there's a fair bit of "get-it-done-itish", the whole "hero" thing. Some of the guys tend to be pretty gung-ho. Not helping that atttitude, there's actually competition to get the job done between hospitals. Add some single pilot, single engine, night ops to scene calls to the mix.... I doubt the safety aspect is ingrained like it is in our EMS ops here.

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