LifeFlight of Maine Embraces Safety to Protect Its Helicopter Crews, Patients

LifeFlight, a hospital-based medevac program, is a nonprofit that serves the entire state of Maine with two helicopters based in Bangor and Lewiston. LifeFlight has voluntarily met many of the NTSB and FAA safety recommendations, and has an excellent safety record to date.
By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009

LEWISTON, Maine -- Nights don't come much darker than Maine's. From a speeding helicopter, the sky blends seamlessly into the ground even in clear weather.

With so much forest and so little light, the crews of LifeFlight of Maine would be picking their way through pitch-black if not for the $12,000 night-vision goggles each member wears.

The goggles are one element of an extensive safety regimen that sets LifeFlight apart from many medical helicopter programs in the country. And the donations and state money that paid for them and other upgrades speak to how Maine's sole helicopter medevac program has come to be viewed as a public utility among the for-profit companies that dominate the industry.

Maine has fewer than 1.3 million residents, scattered across 35,000 square miles, making it a very rural state. Yet no for-profit medical helicopter services operate here, and LifeFlight of Maine has just two helicopters. "That's about the right number to meet patient need. Not demand, not convenience, but need," said Thomas P. Judge, executive director of the small nonprofit program.

He is a harsh critic of the industry's accident rate, unregulated growth and resistance to mandatory safety measures.

LifeFlight owns powerful twin-engine Agusta helicopters that cost $4.25 million each and allow pilots to fly on instruments rather than by sight alone.

Through a combination of the average $6,600 trip fee covered by insurance, charitable donations and $2.6 million from a state bond issue, the nonprofit organization has created an aviation infrastructure: Global Positioning System approaches at eight hospitals improve access to remote communities; helipads are located at nearly every hospital; and local weather stations dot the state.

The program employs satellite tracking and a radio communications center to follow flights. Every 10 minutes, dispatchers talk to a pilot to maintain contact. The helicopters have radar altimeters, which show distance to the ground, but they are not equipped with the terrain-warning systems recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board.

LifeFlight's night-vision program cost $275,000, including the purchase of six sets of goggles, adaptations to helmets, spare parts, training and certification. Crews also are sent to the U.S. Navy's "dunk tank" in Groton, Conn., to learn how to escape from a submerged helicopter.

"We're asking people to do a complicated job, and to the extent you as an operator won't equip them to do it, it's unconscionable," Judge said.

In 1998, Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor collaborated to create LifeFlight and buy its first helicopters. The nurses and paramedics who fly with the program are employees of the two hospitals. They receive death benefit coverage at no cost under a policy that LifeFlight buys.

"I'm with a program that's doing everything it can to get us all home safe every time," said Pat Giarrizzo, a military pilot before joining the Maine program through EraMED, which provides LifeFlight's pilots.

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