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New safety rules coming for medevac helicopters

A spate of crashes involving air ambulances has prompted new attention from Congress.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted May 14, 2009

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The Federal Aviation Administration plans to introduce regulations intended to improve the safety of helicopter emergency medical services. These services were hard hit by an increased number of fatal crashes last year.

The proposed regulations, which should be available for public comment by the end of this year or the beginning of 2010, will incorporate a range of voluntary safety initiatives, such as additional pilot training and the installation of safety equipment, that were recommended by the FAA over the past several years.

"We recognize that relying on voluntary compliance alone is not enough to ensure safe flight operations," John Allen, director of the FAA's Flight Standards Service, told a House subcommittee at an April 22 hearing. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee's Subcommittee on Aviation is investigating the increase in crashes.

The new regulations will likely be ready for implementation in 2011, Allen said.

The hearing was called to "discuss how the aviation industry, government and the health care community can work together toward a common goal of enhanced helicopter EMS safety," said Rep. Jerry Costello (D, Ill.), the subcommittee's chair.

Although approximately 400,000 patients and organs for transplant are safely transported by medevac helicopters each year, Costello said, lives have been lost.

Between 1998 and 2008, there were 146 helicopter EMS crashs with 131 fatalities, Costello said. The greatest number of crashs in any 11-month period occurred between December 2007 and October 2008, he said, resulting in 35 fatalities.

The FAA has identified the need to build a "stronger safety culture in this industry," Allen told the panel. The pilot must have the ability to postpone a flight when the risk to the crew and patients is too great, he said.

A Government Accountability Office report "Potential Strategies to Address Air Ambulance Safety Concerns," was also released at the hearing (link).

Among the strategies proposed was the collection of complete and accurate data on air ambulance operations and the increased use of collision-prevention safety technology.

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