Choppy Winds for Air Rescue

By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tree cover almost completely obscures the landing zone. Maryland State Trooper Joshua Chason searches the sprawling thicket of greenery about 1,000 feet below. The helicopter banks hard right as ground paramedics radio Chason an update.

Forty-seven-year-old man. Fell face-first three stories. Unconscious. Breathing labored. Blood pressure rapidly dropping.

The helicopter lands in an open field near a row of greenhouses in southern Charles County. Dust kicks up around Chason as he strides toward a waiting ambulance. Soon he is back in the air, wiping blood out of the unconscious man's mouth.

It's the first call of the day. In the next six hours, Chason will take off and land about 20 more times. Maryland State Police air rescue helicopter Trooper 2 will fly hundreds of miles across the District and four Maryland counties. With about 1,200 patients flown each year across a more than 1,400-square-mile area that includes parts of Prince George's County and Southern Maryland, Trooper 2 is among the busiest air rescue helicopters in the country.

Heavy demand has taken a toll on Trooper 2 and the 11 other helicopters in the state police air rescue operation, the only such statewide, publicly run service in the country and the national standard-bearer for safety. The 18-year-old fleet needs to be replaced. Last week, the General Assembly endorsed spending $110 million for an overhaul, despite a budget shortfall that could top $1.5 billion.

The alternative would be turning to the private air ambulance industry, which has grown rapidly in recent years as demand for emergency transport has soared. Patients, who are not charged for state-run flights, would pay dearly for private air ambulance service.

The state could save money immediately by no longer operating an air rescue service. But opponents of privatization say it would jeopardize safety and provide less coverage in rural areas where private service would be less profitable.

"Commercial helicopters want the business," said Mary Beachley, the state's trauma care coordinator, "but the problem is, if the state makes the decision that they're no longer going to carry the helicopter system, you're not going to have coverage in the lower rural counties because there's lower volume. It's economics."

Economics are hard to size up from where Chason is sitting. Hundreds of feet below, a golf course gives way to a strip mall. Subdivisions crest onto traffic-clogged roads. Within minutes, the red and white helipad at Prince George's Hospital Center floats into view.

The 47-year-old man's blood pressure is still dropping as Chason and hospital staff rush him to an emergency room that snaps to life the instant the patient enters. Chason briskly runs through the man's history, then heads back to the roof, where he spends a few minutes wiping blood off the helicopter's metal stretcher.

Blood is about the only constant. Chason has learned to expect almost anything on his 12-hour shifts. On any given day, a state helicopter can run a couple of medical calls, conduct searches for criminals or missing people, fly homeland security patrols, perform a water rescue, or all of the above.

"It's never a routine day," Chason says, a few hours later, back at Trooper 2's hangar at Andrews Air Force Base. A call comes in.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company