EMS helicopter industry suggests safety changes

Urging pilots to use night vision goggles and pushing for funding for more hospital helipads are among recommendations made to the safety board.

By Brian Hedger — Posted Feb. 12, 2009

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In response to a 2008 record seven fatal medevac helicopter crashes, resulting in 28 deaths, the air medical services industry has made several safety recommendations to the National Transportation Safety Board.

The recommendations are part of a joint position paper issued in January by the Assn. of Air Medical Services, Helicopter Assn. International, and Air Medical Operators Assn. Industry leaders spoke during an NTSB hearing Feb. 3-6 on the safety of EMS helicopter operations. The board will consider the testimony as it prepares to make more recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration in the coming weeks.

The industry groups want night-vision-enhancement technology to be required for use by pilots during night operations or for night flights to be conducted under instrument flight rules as established by the FAA.

The associations also are calling for government funding to beef up "low-altitude infrastructure," such as by installing helipads at hospitals and improving off-airport weather reporting stations. Several of the fatal accidents last year occurred at night or in low visibility during bad weather.

"There's never a single causal factor [for crashes], so that means there's not going to be a single fix," AAMS President Sandy Kinkade said. "Using night vision goggles is literally like flying in daylight, but it's not the single answer."

The position paper also calls on the FAA to study flight crew fatigue and establish guidelines for local emergency responders to discourage what it called "helicopter shopping." The FAA should add regulations for new technologies and provide a list of best practices for operating systems and quality assurance programs, says the report, available online (link).

Seeking solutions

In October 2008, shortly after the seventh fatal crash of the year, the NTSB put EMS helicopter safety at the top of its annual most-wanted list of aviation improvements. It made four recommendations for the FAA to adopt as regulations for medevac operators:

  • Use commuter aircraft regulations on all medically staffed flights.
  • Use formalized dispatch and flight-following procedures that include up-to-date weather information and assistance in flight-risk assessment decisions.
  • Install helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems and train flight crews to use them.
  • Develop and implement flight-risk evaluation programs and training procedures.

The NTSB scheduled its February public hearing to allow all involved associations and parties to discuss the subject further. Jack Davidoff, MD, who spoke at the hearing, said that was the right approach.

Dr. Davidoff is president of the Air Medical Physicians Assn., and has been medical director of Mercy Flight Central Inc. in upstate New York for 16 years.

"The NTSB is not a regulatory group, but they seem to be really good at research and they are collecting a huge amount of data about this and talking to people who are involved with it," Dr. Davidoff said. "Hopefully they can put all of this data in a format that other organizations can use effectively."

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