By Nikki Jamieson
HALO air ambulance is seeking support from the province to reach greater heights in service.
The Municipal District of Taber council received a copy of a letter sent to the provincial minister of health, Sarah Hoffman, by HALO chairman, Dale Thacker, during their regular March 28 meeting. The letter sought to clarify to Hoffman the position that HALO plays in the province’s air ambulance programs and clarify some misconceptions about the program.
Although they stressed that the STARS air ambulance service was an important provider, the five-page letter expressed concern that the board members of HALO felt that STARS had an “unfair advantage” from the Alberta government, as they are the only contracted Helicopter EMS (HEMS) operator in the province, a position they held for so long, they have since been considered the foremost experts on rotary wing air ambulances. As such, according to the letter, “HALO is not given the opportunity to present our positive attributes and benefits for the communities and rural residents that we support. This situation makes it very difficult to receive, interpret and qualify accurate facts so that you, the minister, can make the best decisions for Albertans”.
With a Q&A explaining more in depth about what the organization does, the letter finishes with explaining that the environment they operate in is ideal for HEMS services and they are cost-effective for the existing ground system to use. They cited a study done by Roberta Squire, who had concluded that HEMS services can be cost effective, and that HEMS and ground-services compliment each other.
HALO is a volunteer service, and in the letter, they ask that the Alberta government commits funding of $700,000 per year to their service, adding they will fundraise the remaining $300,000 and at that level of funding, there will be no other costs billed to Alberta Health Services (AHS).
“The problem is that we both (HALO and Phoenix Heli-flight, based in northern Alberta) have is that the ELC, which dispatch us, is operated by STARS and as such has been reluctant to use either operation effectively. They are using the excuse that they are saving money for AHS by adhering to (a) STARS model that is designed for more highly populated areas,” reads the letter. “We argue this by saying that they don’t use us, because we clearly demonstrate that they, at $10,000,000 per base aren’t even close to being a cost-effective HEMS service. At that price, STARS are not the HEMS services talked about in that study. It’s operations like this that give the general perception that helicopters are prohibitively (expensive). Please give us the opportunity for three years to demonstrate this. We will not disappoint you.”
A copy of the letter had been sent to the M.D. of Taber council to address some of the concerns they might have about the service. As they had attended a recent Alberta Association Of Municipal Districts & Counties (AAMDC) meeting, where they inquired about HALO funding, it also served to clear up some misinformation.
“We were told there that this was a fee-for-service, it is not a fee-for-service, they’ve only ever done three fee-for-services in the 10 years that they’ve been there. There seems to be some misinformation there, and I guess that they’re just clarifying that, getting something down in writing,” said Brian Brewin, reeve for the M.D.
Brewin said they had a meeting with the Medicine Hat MLA, Robert Wanner, at the end of March, and said he intended to give him a copy of the letter. Coun. Bob Wallace said they would need to follow up with the health minister’s executive assistant, and recommended that they ask them to contact the mayors and reeves of southeastern Alberta.
“(HALO) actually did a presentation at the southwest mayors and reeves, Bob (Wallace), and there was a lot of individuals there that didn’t know they existed,” said Brewin. “Certainly the Waterton area expressed a lot of interest, because there’s occasions when people have been down in the gully and a helicopter couldn’t (get down there), HALO would have the ability to get to some of those locations where STARS couldn’t.”
The HALO helicopter, a Bell 206 L2 Long Ranger, weighs about 5,400 kg less then the STARS helicopters that fly in the area, and as a result, are more maneuverable and can land in more places.
Wallace referred to the decision made by STARS back in October 2016, when they had moved its new AgustaWestland-139 helicopter — bought for $16 million after a successful fundraising campaign, including local contributions — to Edmonton, which is now home to two AgustaWestland-139, and now operates one BK-117 out of Calgary, with a second available as a backup. According to information released by STARS at the time of the decision to limit flights to southern Alberta with the AgustaWestland-139 helicopter, the new AW-139 helicopter will be stationed in Edmonton to save an estimated $500,000 a year, including training and maintenance costs, plus the fact there are more remote missions in northern Alberta than southern Alberta.
“The shorter range ones are here, which again, are contrary to what the minister is saying, and her information. So whether she was misinformed or didn’t know, that’s what triggers a response for more information,” said Wallace.
Contributing to the decision may have been questions surrounding the existing medical helipads in southern Alberta not able to support the new AgustaWestland-139. The helipad at the Taber Hospital is not currently big enough to serve the AgustaWestland-139, although it is large enough for a BK-117 to land there. However, the knowledge that the newer helicopters can’t land there has sparked concern among local residents, and the helipad is currently undergoing the process to get AHS to enlarge it, although Wallace pointed out that one can argue why enlarge it if the big helicopter won’t be landing there.
“It’s a huge undertaking for everyone in the area, and then the helicopter is just not even here,” said Wallace. “The one that has always been flying here, for all the years, is the one that’s back.”
“But the good news is, they can still land at our airport,” said Dwight Tolton, M.D. councillor, refering the the M.D. of Taber airport’s ability to house helicopters. “There’s GNS approach, there’s lights… But that’s kind of like the story that’s not being told.”
In addition to being able to land helicopters and planes, the M.D. airport can also land fixed-wing air ambulances as well.
Council passed a motion to forward HALO information along with contact information to the Mayors and Reeves Association of Southeast Alberta.