Bridget Bese/AP
An Air Evac helicopter responds to an
accident in a 2007 file photo.

Medical Helicopter Crash in Ill. Highlights Disturbing National Trend

October 16, 2008 04:45 PM
by Lindsey Chapman
Another medical helicopter crash, this time in Illinois, draws attention to the rulemaking process for air safety.

Medical Aircraft Crashes

The list of medical helicopter crashes around the country continues to grow. A critical care helicopter in Illinois crashed during the night on Oct. 15, killing all four people on board.

A few weeks earlier, a medical helicopter crashed in Maryland, also killing four people. The accident is the deadliest in the history of Maryland's state police aviation program.

Maryland's program has been under close watch recently. On Sept. 11, a whistleblower told federal authorities that mismanagement in the program could lead to adverse consequences. Another individual said the helicopter in the Sept. 28 accident had been damaged in an incident years earlier, according to The Examiner.

In 2005, USA Today reported that “a deadly trend of pilot errors, industry carelessness and poor government oversight has driven the number of air ambulance crashes to record levels.” A 2006 reported indicated that 29 of 55 air ambulance crashes between January 2002 and January 2005 could have been prevented.

The National Transportation Safety Board has noted some recurring themes in medical helicopter crashes, including inconsistent dispatch procedures and limited requirements to use "safety-enhancement technologies" like night vision goggles, according to CNN. The NTSB can make safety recommendations for the medical flight industry, but it's up to the FAA to make them mandatory.

Background: A "disturbing" trend

On Aug. 31, 2008, an Air Evac medical transport helicopter crashed in Indiana, instantly killing the three crew members on board. This is the fifth accident involving an Air Evac helicopter in recent years.

The crew wasn’t on an ambulance run, but was traveling to a tractor pull event. It’s common practice, Air Evac told the Indianapolis Star, for its workers to attend community events.

In June 2008, two medical helicopters crashed into each other in Arizona, killing six people. After the incident, NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker told CBS News that these problems had reached a “disturbing” level.

NTSB member Deborah A. P. Hersman, told The Baltimore Sun that medical flights are some of the riskiest for helicopters perform. In the last year, Hersman said the NTSB has investigated eight deadly medical flight accidents. "We are very concerned about this segment of the industry, and that's why we sent a whole team" to Maryland, Hersman explained.

As for the Arizona crash, it was the fist time in history that two medical aircraft had been involved in an accident together, according to USA Today. Rosenker noted that for 2008, the medical helicopter industry was on its way to a “record-breaking year” in terms of deaths.

Related Topic: Ambulance risks

Transporting patients in ambulances is not without its potential dangers, either. The Associated Press reports that a recent ambulance crash in Vermont highlighted two concerns common to many such accidents: risky driving and hazardous patient compartments. Dan Manz, head of emergency medical services at the Vermont Department of Health, said the practice of using a “lead foot” to save lives isn’t necessary. The patient compartment problem is a littler harder to address, however. Manz said, “There is heavy equipment in use that is very difficult to secure.”

In Australia, ambulance crews are experiencing such serious cases of fatigue that the Ambulance Employees Australia (AEA) union said the lives of paramedics and patients are at risk. Some workers put in between five and eight hours of overtime a week, and request from 13.5 to 16 sick leave days a year. Those numbers indicate that paramedics are overworked and in need of longer breaks between shifts, the AEA told The Australian. Some workers had admitted to falling asleep at the wheel, and to drawing up and nearly administering the wrong drugs to patients.

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