There is a major blindspot in B.C.’s helicopter medevac system, and a local company is looking to fix it.
Ascent Helicopters, based in Parksville, is preparing to bring nighttime medevac service to the Island and parts of the West Coast, and it plans to do it by equipping pilots with night-vision goggles.
That’s according to the company’s president, Trent Lemke.
“We’ll have capabilities that (B.C.’s air ambulance program has) never had before,” he said during a visit to the company’s Parksville facility on Springhill Road.
“We’ve been working with Transport Canada on this since last August to develop a program to get into these type of operations. And yeah, the way it’s looking right now, we should be completed and up and going some time in June.”
The company has been located in Parksville for 13 years, and started off with two helicopters. It used to operate out of Qualicum Beach Airport, but noise complaints made doing business there difficult, said Lemke.
Now, the company employs 55 staff and does mostly emergency fire and hydro installation work with a fleet of 11 helicopters.
Critically, one of those 11 helicopters is a McDonnell Douglas 902 worth more than $6 million. It’s a twin-engine helicopter that meets stringent single-engine performance standards required by Transport Canada for certain work, including use at some hospitals.
“There are sort of three different categories for twin-engines in the industry,” said Lemke. “There are some that can fly on one engine, and ones that sorta can fly on one engine, and ones that will sort of take you to the crash scene. We need ones that can fly on one engine.”
The safety requirement is in case one engine fails, and the helicopter has someone hanging below it.
“You want to make sure that they have all the options possible to get out of there safely, and so as an offshoot of that, it’s a helicopter that’s very useful for the ambulance service also,” he said.
Ascent was already put to work providing ambulance service last September when the company previously contracted to provide air ambulance service in parts of B.C. was barred from landing at seven hospitals, including Nanaimo Regional General Hospital, due to non-compliance with some federal landing regulations, according to CBC and CTV reports.
“So they asked us if we could help out, so we spent about four-and-a-half months with the ambulance service over in Vancouver making sure those patients got to those hospitals,” said Lemke.
As a result, Ascent realized B.C. is quite limited when it comes to nighttime flying.
“Everybody has a certain amount of restrictions at nighttime, so the current providers, they can only go to scheduled areas like airports or designated areas at nighttime operations,” Lemke said. That means patients will sometimes have to use road ambulances to get to an airport, then take a helicopter to a designated hospital landing pad or another airport, where the patient takes another road ambulance to the hospital. That can take a lot of extra time during a medical emergency.
Lemke and Ascent are planning to do something about that.
“There is no one in British Columbia that uses NVG, which is night-vision goggles. And so we decided at the time, that that was a route that we wanted to go,” he said.
Using the technology would allow the company to go anywhere at night, without restriction, he said, going to places like Port Hardy and Port McNeill that don’t have approved nighttime helipad operations.
“It’s actually quite astonishing,” he said of the situation.
Currently, Ascent still provides some medevac services on a per-request basis, but the company isn’t contracted full time, said Lemke.
Using helicopters allows Vancouver Island’s one critical care team (based out of Nanaimo) to reach crash victims and other patients much quicker than by car, meaning they can respond to more situations during a given shift, Lemke said.
“If they (the critical care team) have to go to Campbell River by ground to pick up a heart patient and go to Victoria, that wipes that crew out for that whole shift,” whereas taking a helicopter can cut that time significantly. “So there are a lot of logistical issues, and geographic issues with the Island for patient care.”
Ascent’s helicopter is capable of travelling two hours in any direction, allowing it to reach any point on Vancouver Island, and parts of the Lower Mainland, including Whistler and Powell River.
Currently, the company does between five and 10 medevac calls a month, but they also turn down about four or five calls a month due to daylight restrictions, said Lemke.
“Like, we had a scene response call 10 minutes before dark on the highway to Gold River where they wanted the critical care team there to help out. A bad accident, and we couldn’t go,” he said.
He hopes this new certification to use night-vision goggles can change that.
Because Ascent is located at about the midpoint of the Island, he said, his company is ideally situated to provide this service.