One of a pair of new AgustaWestland AW-139 helicopters serving Alberta, the unit has increased capabilities in comparison to its earlier versions.
“It’s our brand-new helicopter, to be based out of Calgary, and that helicopter will be serving southern Alberta out of the Calgary base,” said Cam Heke, a spokesperson for STARS.
“It’s the second of two new helicopters we have for Alberta, the other one being located in Edmonton, the same thing being an AW-139. These are donor-funded helicopters, so we fundraised to be able to purchase the helicopters.”
The Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) is a non-profit helicopter air ambulance organization funded by individual donors, service groups, corporate donors and government contributions. STARS provides rapid and specialized emergency care and transportation for critically ill and injured patients, and operates from bases in Calgary, Edmonton, Grande Prairie, Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.
The AW-139 units cost $14 million, with an additional $2 million for the medical interior of each helicopter.
The cruising speed of the new helicopters should help bring patients to medical facilities faster, according to Heke.
“The medical interiors are very much like an intensive-care unit environment, so the things that you’d find in an intensive care unit at a major hospital, they’ll have a similar set-up with equipment in the back of that helicopter. It’s going to be great for providing patient care to places like Taber, because it’s much faster than our traditional, older, BK-117 helicopters. More specifically, speaking in terms of kilometres, the new helicopter can fly up to 300 kilometres per hour, where our smaller, older BK-117 helicopters fly at about 225 kilometres per hour.”
New foul-weather capability is an added enhancement for the AW-139 helicopter units.
“The new helicopter also has de-icing capability,” said Heke. “That means that during days when the weather was such that we’d have to decline a mission due to icing conditions, with this new helicopter, we’ll be able to go ahead and respond, because it does have that de-icing capability.”
An added capability of being able to transport two patients simultaneously is a huge improvement over STARS previous helicopter units in Alberta.
“It’s much larger, as well, which is very important for the medical interior in the back, where our paramedic and our nurse work, because they’ll have more room to access patients. There will also be room for two stretchers if required, so we could take two patients, with our medical staff having access to both those patients, where our current helicopters are only configured to have one stretcher on board the aircraft,” said Heke.
Visiting various communities in southern Alberta, Heke pointed out the helicopter trips are much more than just an exercise in public relations.
“Our crews have gotten out to about 40 communities in the last two weeks. The purpose for these trips are to make sure that our own staff are trained and comfortable working in and around the new helicopters, because safety is priority one. Secondly, our partners in the communities, at hospitals, EMS, fire departments, police, RCMP — we want to make sure that all of the community partners that we work with on a daily basis are familiar with the helicopter, and have an opportunity to ask our crews questions about it. We’re also doing landing-zone training with emergency services to make sure that they’re comfortable working around this new helicopter, because it is much more powerful and larger.”
The 2013 STARS budget for Alberta was $30 million, and the air ambulances flew 1680 times from three bases in the province.
“About 20 per cent of our funding comes from provincial government sources, and the other 80 per cent comes in through donations and fundraising campaigns,” said Heke.