Friday, January 27, 2006

Air Medical Safety

From the NY Times, via Symtym:

Air ambulance crashes killed 54 people, most of them pilots, paramedics and nurses, in a three-year period ending in early 2005, according to a special study by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The report, which was approved by the board on Wednesday, concluded that pilots were not good at analyzing risks and that the rules are too lax for flights that are not carrying a patient or a donated organ.

Helicopters and planes used as ambulances fly under airline-type rules when carrying a patient or organs. But if they are on their way to a pickup, they fly under rules that apply to private planes, which do not limit how many hours a pilot can work and allow flights in worse weather. Three-quarters of the accidents occurred under those rules.

"It seems like a ridiculous paper loophole that needs to be closed," said one member of the board, Debbie Hersman. "You've got one, two or three medical personnel on board, and they have organs in their bodies. They're just as important cargo as an organ for transplant."

Investigators also supported a formal program of "flight risk evaluation," in which the pilot and possibly a second expert would dispassionately score each mission, based on weather conditions, time of day and other factors. Of the 55 accidents, 13 might not have occurred if such evaluations had been done, they said.

While the number of crashes is up, including nine more crashes killing eight people since the end of the study, the rate of accidents is uncertain because of difficulties in determining the number of flights. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there are about 650 emergency medical service helicopters; an industry group estimates there are more than 750.


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