Commentary – Helipads for STARS essential

Mac Olsen

Every municipality – including municipal districts and counties – should be required to have a designated helipad for the STARS air ambulance service. Cost should not be an excuse for objecting to them, nor for not having them built.

Last week, I read an article on the Global News (Edmonton) website about an inquiry that was conducted into the death of Ge Genbao, a worker from China who died after being injured at the CNRL Horizon oil sands construction site.

According to the story from Nov. 15: “A judge says air ambulance service in the oil sands region in northeast Alberta is hobbled because helicopters can’t land directly at the Fort McMurray hospital.”

A fatality inquiry report into the 2007 death of an oil sands worker recommends government officials move “with all due haste” to enable helicopter flights to the hospital, noting the lack of an approved landing pad is undermining the capabilities of the air ambulance.

The story also says helicopters carrying injured people must now land at the city’s airport first. The patient then travels by ground ambulance to the hospital, a process that can take 25 minutes or longer, and then transferred the patient to a ground ambulance that drives to the hospital, a process that can take 25 minutes or longer.

“Time is a critical factor in emergency care, and the current necessity of taking patients to the helicopter base and transporting them by ground ambulance wastes crucial minutes,” says provincial court judge James Jacques.

Also in the story, “The report said (Ge Genboa’s) injuries were so severe it is unlikely that a helicopter transport would have saved his life.”

The judge’s recommendation confirms to me that helipads are a necessity when it comes to STARS. The Alberta Government should have legislation in place mandating helipad construction and operation in all municipalities.

Helipads, whether they are located at hospitals, fire halls or emergency operation centres, can make the difference in getting the patient to Edmonton, Calgary or Grande Prairie or other urban centre in less time – within the “golden hour” of life.

Granted, STARS also has to land in rural areas, especially along highways where vehicle collisions occur, and first responders have to establish makeshift landing sites for those incidents.

But one day last year in Falher, STARS had to land in the parking lot at the Centre Chevaliers because of a two-vehicle collision in a residential area. A patient had to be transported to Grande Prairie from there. The playgrounds at Ecole Providence in McLennan and St. Andrew’s School in High Prairie have also been used by STARS. But if these communities had designated helipads at their hospitals, it would make patient transport easier to manage, and more timely in certain circumstances.

During a day trip to Grande Prairie on Oct. 28, I stopped at the M.D. of Greenview’s new fire hall in DeBolt, for their grand opening. Their new fire hall has a designated helipad, and a STARS crew trained with the fire department prior to the grand opening.

Kudos to the M.D. of Greenview for incorporating a helipad as part of their new fire hall, and I can only hope that other municipalities will follow their lead.

Moreover, the Alberta Government must partner with the municipalities and provide funding to those that don’t have them.

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