While in the area, I heard North Fayette VFD being dispatched to establish a landing zone at their station on Steubenville Pike. Having not monitored an accident or other incident occurring, I was intrigued by this development, and headed over, arriving just after the STAT MedEvac helicopter did.
Upon arriving, I overheard an officer of the Fire Dept. explain to others that the aircraft was landing there to transfer a patient from the nearby Kindred Hospital, a Long Term Acute Care facility. Northwest EMS was staged at the landing zone to take the crew to the hospital and bring them back to the aircraft with the patient.
While I was taking pictures, I noticed the crew paying what seemed to me an inordinate amount of attention to the sliding aircraft door. It appeared that when a crew member opened the door, it would not close or slide properly. Eventually, all 3 of the aircraft crew became involved in evaluating the problem with the door. It was obvious as to why; if the door could not be restored to normal operating condition, it was an issue that could potentially ground the aircraft.
After a few minutes, the medical crew left with Northwest EMS for the hospital. The pilot, who normally remains with the aircraft, got on his phone. It looked to me like that "Hello, AAA?" posture that people can be seen assuming while they're sitting inside their disabled vehicle on the side of the road. Instead, the call was likely to the STAT MedEvac communications center to get a mechanic involved.
About 30 minutes later, the Northwest ambulance that was initially at the LZ drove past the fire station, and I overheard on the scanner that the ambulance was on its way to UPMC Mercy, with the aircraft medical crew and patient aboard. Additional scanner traffic, and a conversation with the fire official at the scene, confirmed that the aircraft was indeed grounded by the malfunctioning door, and that a mechanic was on the way to address the issue.
Voice mail messages left for STAT MedEvac media relations staff were not returned.
This kind of occurrence may seem trivial, but it's fortunate that this did not occur at an emergency scene flight. Even if it had, despite the heightened emotions and sense of urgency common to those kinds of calls, the decision making would likely not have changed.
That's a good thing. This was absolutely the right thing to do, in any circumstance.
Over the past several years, in response to numerous accidents and incidents involving EMS helicopters, many air medical operators, with the support of trade organizations and the FAA, have moved to alter their operational practices, and even the culture within the organization, through the implementation of Safety Management Systems. These efforts involve a combination of regulatory and organizational changes designed to accomplish the following:
- Define how the organization is set up to manage risk.
- Identify workplace risk and implement suitable controls.
- Implement effective communications across all levels of the organization.
- Implement a process to identify and correct non-conformities.
- Implement a continual improvement process.
STAT MedEvac touts their commitment to SMS and safety practices on their website. As one who has worked in and followed the industry over the years, the accomplishments of STAT MedEvac with regard to the above bullet points appears to be fairly impressive, as it should when you are operating 17 helicopters across the region.
As the ambulance drove by on the way to Mercy, without lights or sirens, I wondered about the utilization of air transport in this instance. What were the patient's needs? Rapid transport? Specialized care not otherwise available? These are questions that have and will continue to be asked, especially as the debate over health care costs continues to heat up. That's for another post.
In the meantime, as an educated and experienced observer I was impressed with the level of professionalism, organization, and decorum on the part of the Fire and EMS agencies involved in the response. It's indicative of a general improvement in these areas that I've noticed since moving back.
Have a pleasant, blessed, and safe Easter weekend.