The rules proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will require helicopter operators, including air ambulances, to fly under stricter flight rules and procedures, improved communications and training, and additional on-board safety equipment.
“LifeFlight applauds the move toward stronger federal regulatory oversight, rather than relying on industry self regulations and any effort to make the industry safer,” said LifeFlight Director Jeanne Yeatman, MBA, RN, EMT. “We strongly support anything that will enhance and promote safety. Safety is our No. 1 product.”
Since its beginning in 1983 LifeFlight has proven a leader in implementing new and emerging technology. It was the first air ambulance helicopter program in the United States to implement the American Eurocopter EC145, which has redundant systems to enhance the aircraft’s safety.
Additionally, all of LifeFlight’s helicopters are capable of flying during inclement weather, utilizing state-of-the-art avionics equipment.
“By having a single-pilot IFR (instrument flight rules)-approved autopilot, IFR-approved GPS, and having pilots qualified for IFR operations, we are able to conduct EMS flights under IFR conditions” Yeatman said. “This allows LifeFlight to fly in a radar-controlled environment and in protected airspace (from terrain, obstacles and other aircraft) when weather conditions are less than visual meteorological conditions.
John Morris, M.D., professor of Surgery, director of the Division of Trauma and Surgical Critical Care, and a national air ambulance expert, said the proposed rules do not go far enough to ensure complete safety.
“They are a great start,” he said. “But the proposed rules need to include minimum standards for aircraft performance and operational standards. The proposed rules say nothing about providing air conditioning in an aircraft that is carrying critically ill patients, nor do they call for night vision goggles.”
Morris said the industry needs more medical oversight, saying “There is too much variability in the quality of care and too much variability” in safety equipment and care.
“You have to save lives by reducing crashes, and you have to save lives by providing good medical care during transport,” he said. “You cannot look at just reducing crashes without looking at the quality of care that’s delivered, because you can’t justify the additional risk of any crashes if you don’t provide better care than ground transportation.”
The proposed rules will require air ambulance operators to:
• Equip with Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS).
• The proposal seeks comments on requirements for light-weight aircraft recording systems (LARS).
• Conduct operations under Part 135, including flight crew time limitation and rest requirements, when medical personnel are on board.
• Establish operations control centers if they are certificate holders with 10 or more helicopter air ambulances.
• Institute pre-flight risk-analysis programs.
• Conduct safety briefings for medical personnel.
• Amend their operational requirements to include Visual Flight Rules (VFR) weather minimums, Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) operations at airports/heliports without weather reporting, procedures for VFR approaches, and VFR flight planning.
• Ensure their pilots in command hold an instrument rating.
Since its first flight in 1983 LifeFlight has logged more than 35,000 patient transports and averages 300 transports a month. LifeFlight consists of five helicopters, a turbo prop airplane for long-range transports, a highly sophisticated communications and data center, ground ambulance transportation, and an “event medicine” program.
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