By Trevor Busch and Greg Price
STARS Air Ambulance service to the community is being maintained despite that organization deciding to limit flights in southern Alberta to its older helicopter model.
In October, STARS moved its new AgustaWestland-139 helicopter — bought for $16 million after a successful fundraising campaign, including local contributions — to Edmonton, and now operates one BK-117 out of Calgary, with a second available as a backup. 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 AgustaWestland AW-139 is a 15-seat medium-sized twin-engined helicopter.
“The BK-117 helicopter stationed at the STARS Calgary base flies to Taber — there were nine missions to the town last year,” said Fatima Khawaja, a spokesperson with STARS. “The helicopter is able to land at Taber hospital, and at on-scene calls anywhere. We will continue to use our BK fleet as we have for 30-plus years, and that heliport remediations will continue under the responsibility of AHS to build for the future to accommodate medium sized helicopters.”
According to information released by STARS at the time of the decision to limit flights to southern Alberta with the AgustaWestland-139 helicopter, and 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.
“A certain size of helicopter needs a different type of pad,” said Mayor Henk DeVlieger. “I think that they’re maybe looking at re-doing the pad to make it still good to land. STARS, they have now different sizes of helicopters. It would be nice if they could still land at the hospital. To me, it looks like there’s lots of room, but they might have to re-do the location and the contour of the pad.”
Dave McKee, Taber and District Health Foundation fundraising co-ordinator, highlighted the pad at Brooks that was updated and noted the pad in Taber locally might cost between $500,000 to $600,000 to upgrade it so that pad could accommodate the newer AgustaWestland-139.
“We would love to have it done, and we have been talking about it. But it is up to Alberta Health Services. They need to get off their butts and get that accomplished. But I can see where they are coming from. They are doing them in priority order, and I’m not sure where we are in that priority list. It’s like the parking lots (at the hospital). It got so bad, ambulances were not able to get into the bay, so the priority jumped to the top of the list. And my understanding was that was close to $1.5 million for those parking lots.”
McKee noted the issue over an improved landing pad is not always an easy one with three levels of government in municipal, provincial and federal getting involved and tying in with Alberta Health Services.
Khawaja with STARS pointed out the organization has been working with Alberta Health Services to remediate helipads throughout southern Alberta.
“At present, STARS can land at any helipad with the BK-117. We’ve been working with AHS for several years now in line with guidelines from Transport Canada, with respect to remediating heliports across the province to be able to accommodate any medium-sized helicopters used in the chain-of-survival (military, police or other rescue helicopters included).”
Steve Rees, a senior program officer with Alberta Health Services’ capital management, confirmed AHS has no immediate plans to remediate the Taber helipad in light of the decision by STARS to only fly northern missions with its new AW-139 helicopters.
“The Taber Health Centre has a BK-117 certified helipad and it will continue to be used for patient transport. There have been no previous plans, nor are there any current plans to upgrade the Taber Health Centre heliport at this time, as there is no need. In light of a decision by STARS to no longer fly the larger AW-139 helicopters in southern Alberta, there is less pressure in the short term to upgrade helipads in Calgary and South zones in order to accommodate the larger helicopter. This will be considered in future planning at Alberta Health Services sites.”
Rees went on to suggest that when it comes to health-related infrastructure, AHS has been diligent in providing funding for a variety of projects in recent years.
“AHS is investing in the future of the Taber Health Centre. In the last few years, more than $1.6 million has been invested in Infrastructure Maintenance Program (IMP) projects at the facility including a new heating system, parking lot and security system. In addition, more than $9 million was invested to consolidate health services at the Health Centre after renovations were made to the hospital’s vacated long-term care wing.”
McKee with TDHF holds out some hope that Taber’s helipad could be remediated in future to accommodate the AW-139 helicopters.
“At first I thought you could get a committee together like we had with the spray park and ‘poof’ it could get done with a brand new helipad. But, it’s not that easy,” said McKee. “But, we would love to that in here. We would love to see that pad upgraded to accomodate the new choppers.”