A medical helicopter crashed near Chicago in October, killing three adults and a baby. This tragedy appears to be part of a trend. The crash was the ninth fatal accident nationwide in an 11-month period resulting in 35 people losing their life. Unfortunately, the Chicago accident, like others preceding it, most likely could have been prevented. The helicopter, which had clipped the support wire of a radio station tower while flying at night, lacked up-to-date safety equipment such as a device to alert the pilot to towers and other nearby obstacles.
The National Transportation Safety Board is trying to reduce the poor safety record of medical helicopters. The Board started four days of hearings in Washington on February 3rd. Safety advocates appeared and demanded a crackdown on the medical helicopter industry. This is a loosely regulated business with annual revenues estimated at more than $2.5 billion. The industry has grown rapidly and has a pretty bad safety record.
More than 800 medical helicopters are currently estimated to be operating in this country, airlifting the sick and injured, often under emergency conditions. In the last decade, the industry has doubled in size while undergoing a business transformation. Hospitals were the primary operators of such helicopters at the outset. Now the work is outsourced to commercial operators such as the Air Methods Corporation and PHI Inc., which are safety experts contend that competition among companies for flights has added to the risks.
The only thing the panel holding the safety board hearings can do is to make recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the flight safety of medical helicopters. The sessions brought together aviation experts, helicopter personnel and industry executives, and hopefully the panel will help bring about some needed changes in this industry. The causes of the accidents were examined at the hearing along with other issues relating to both air safety and medical care. Safety advocates say necessary changes include tighter federal and state regulation. Dr. John A. Morris Jr., medical director of the helicopter program at Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville observed: “This industry needs more oversight. There is too much variability in the quality of care and too much variability in safety equipment.”
Industry officials say that they recognize a need for some safety mandates, including rules governing flights at nighttime, when most accidents occur. But they argue that companies should be free to choose the technologies best suited to their operations.
In 2006, after 18 people died in six crashes in 2004, the safety board urged the FAA to order companies to take four safety steps, which would include installing obstacle sensing systems and developing better weather reporting systems. Many accidents occur when pilots, often responding to emergencies, find themselves in deteriorating weather without adequate navigation technology to help them fly safely out of it. thus far, the FAA has taken action on only one of those mandates. Last fall, the safety board put safer medical helicopters on its list of the nation’s top transportation priorities. But so far very little has been done.
Source: The New York Times
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