HERO: Saving Lives in Our Region
Saving lives by saving time. That’s the mantra that local Helicopter Emergency Response Organization (HERO) Foundation bringing critically ill or seriously injured patients to hospital where they can receive life-saving care.
One of the challenges this foundation faces is the misconception that STARS Air Ambulance, a medevac service that only comes as far north as the Wandering River area. It doesn’t serve north-eastern Alberta including the oil sands sites.
Local HERO is what Paul & Andrea Spring began in 2013 to fill that much-needed gap in emergency care for our remote and rural areas. The air ambulance service gained charity status in 2016. It is a non-profit organization that runs a dedicated helicopter program with a medically equipped chopper and crew standing by 24/7.
Andrea is the director of stakeholder and community relations. Paul began flying medevac flights in 1986. He has 40 years of aviation behind him including accumulating more than 14,000 hours of flight time in single and twin-engine helicopters, also having flown fixed wing aircraft.
After 22 years of being the on-call pilot for medevac, Spring turned over the dedicated role to the nine pilots that staff the HERO program. However, he does fly the back-up and second response helicopters when required for medevac.
“It’s fast. It’s time. Everybody’s fighting the clock whether you’re having a stroke, heart attack, bleeding out hanging on after you’ve been crushed or you’re suffering a drug overdose, time is your enemy and modern pharmaceuticals like TNK which is the heart attack drug needed to get there in an appropriate amount of time,” says Spring.
TNK – or tenecteplase – is supposed to be administered as soon as possible following a heart attack, generally within 30 minutes.
“That’s the biggest factor now,” he adds. “The chopper brings speed to the equation, getting the people and the equipment, and the modern medical interventions like these drugs to you before you die.”
“Saving lives by saving time,” adds Andrea as Paul discusses the best feature of Local HERO.
On the flipside, the fact that HERO1 is not dispatched locally is the most challenging factor for the air ambulance program.
Currently, dispatching is handled by the Emergency Link Centre (ELC) in Calgary.
While on a map, the location of the injured party may look like they are in an area that is easy to get to including by road, there are many times it’s not as the two points, for example, may be separated by a river or non-accessible by road because it’s in the middle of dense ATV trails. With those ELC dispatchers being in Calgary, they are unfamiliar with the Wood Buffalo topography whereas local dispatchers are better aware of the lay of the land.
“This leads to gaps and errors in patient information (location), delays in dispatching and ultimately reduced effectiveness in aiding patients, the very reason HERO exists,” states Spring.
Prior to Local HERO, the Spring’s original business venture, Phoenix Heli-Flight, provided on-demand medevac services for the previous 22 years to individuals and private industry for transportation from remote industrial, recreational and motor vehicle collisions within a 400 km radius of Fort McMurray. All services are provided with paramedics in conjunction with the Fort McMurray Fire Department.
Local HERO uses a twin-engine EC135P2+ equipped with night vision goggles and the latest in Helicopter Flight Data Monitoring and flight tracking. While Phoenix founded the dedicated medevac helicopter program, fund-raising is a big part of the business in order to sustain the Local HERO.
Many have witnessed the chopper landing on Highway 63 at the scene of a collision or flying overhead on its way to a call in the oil sands or backcountry.
Spring is cautiously optimistic about the opening of the new heli-pad currently under construction at Northern Lights Regional Health Sciences Centre.
Currently, HERO 1 lands at Phoenix’s hangars located at the Fort McMurray International Airport and from there, patients are taken by ground ambulance to Northern Lights. The trip averages 21 minutes. The airport is the only facility where Local HERO can land given Transport Canada regulations. In years past, HERO1 has landed at Firehall One to transfer a critically injured patient to an ambulance for the last leg of the emergency trip.
One piece about the air ambulance service the Springs want people to know is: “Everybody who gets a ride doesn’t pay. Really.”
Spring says staff at industrial sites don’t want to call for the air ambulance because they believe they’re going to get a bill and a massive one at that.
“You do in the States,” he acknowledges. “You get invoices. Invoices down there are $50,000 or $60,000.”
He said there is a move in the U.S. to limit air ambulance billing now because some helicopter air medical suppliers are making annual revenues in excess of $1-billion a year.
“That’s making money off people who need their service. Some of the people… could have gone by ground ambulance.”
In Canada, there are several programs.
“This is a very unique program, but people don’t need to know we’re unique. They just need to know that if you get a flight with HERO1, you’re not getting a bill.”
He explains they don’t get a bill thanks to the funding that is received from Alberta Health, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and the oil companies as well as from the donations resulting from the fundraisers Local HERO hosts plus those held by other supporters.
“Don’t be scared to call us. There’s not going to be a big bill at the end. We just want to get you the medical care you need as fast as possible.
“That’s what we’re about.”
Going forward, Spring pans that it’s going to be kind of boring because Local HERO will just be doing the same ol’ thing for a while.
“We would like a faster machine that could carry two patients and has more fuel. We do end up challenged right now. This is the entry level aircraft. Any smaller and we couldn’t fly at night. We wouldn’t have the room for two engines, two pilots, all the paramedics and all the stuff we need to fly at night. It’s the smallest one we could get that does the job because we couldn’t spend any more.”
The Springs are eyeing an H145T2 which carries a $12-million CAD price tag.
Sometimes, Local HERO gets a call about someone having a heart attack and arrives so quickly – say 14 minutes – the chopper still has a full tank of gas. The chopper is always filled up ready to go in case they have to take someone to Edmonton. That’s because they want to respond quickly rather than taking precious time fuelling up after the call comes in from dispatch.
That full tank can be problematic if the patient is notably overweight. It has happened that the patient has been such a size that their weight combined with the full fuel tank makes air transport in the EC135P2+ impossible.
The good news is that paramedics arrived so fast with the vital TNK which was administered quickly.
“The patient is now in a stable condition and we can stay with the patient; nurse the patient until a ground ambulance gets there.”
There are times the chopper has sat at scene with the engines running in an effort to burn off fuel to allow transport of heavier patients if they need to be taken to Edmonton.
“And we can only take one person,” he adds of the EC135P2+ restrictions.
“So we have a very tight aircraft and it’s got some limitations. We have a very big area to cover. We go over to Wabasca sometimes.”
Wabasaca is 180 kilometres west of Fort McMurray by helicopter.
When finances allow, HERO1 will be traded in for the H145T2.
“That would give us the capability to carry two patients. It would give paramedics more room in the back. We would also have more room for a sit-up (seat).
“Sometimes we have to transport people who are not good people. They’ve been involved in a shooting and they’ve been the criminal.”
He adds that an officer wants to accompany the injured suspect, but there isn’t enough room in the small chopper.
“Now we have to transport that person without the RCMP on board so we have two paramedics and a patient in handcuffs, but no law enforcement on board.”
“The bigger machine would allow us to have law enforcement on board. It would also allow us to have a family member who speaks Cree or Chip for an Elder. So when transporting an Elder who doesn’t speak English, we could have a family member with them. Or we could have mom or dad on board if we’re transporting a youngster, a six-year-old or a baby.”
“It gives us a lot more working space, and speed and fuel for all the different scenarios that crop up. We hate taking a small child and saying mom ‘You’re going to have to drive to the hospital. We’re going to McMurray or we’re going to Edmonton, but you’re going to have to get yourself there somehow.’”
The idea of starting a dedicated medevac helicopter program to serve the oil sands area had been talked about by the Springs and Dr. Brian Dufresne representing local emergency department doctors since the area started expanding rapidly in 2002. After the doctors gave up trying to convince Alberta Health Services of the region’s need for a dedicated medical helicopter in 2012 the cause was taken up by Phoenix Heli-Flight.
Spring will readily admit that starting this service was hard on his family,
“The big regret I have is starting the service with Phoenix’s money before we had financial contributions from industry or government. This was the right thing to do for the people of our region, but it would have been a lot easier on me to wait for outside funding to come forward even if it took another year. There is, however, consolation for the financial pain Andrea and I went through: When we get a call or card from someone telling us how our determination to provide this service has saved their life.”