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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.

Safety investments loomed large from the start, prompted in great part by memories of a 1993 crash of a medical helicopter in Casco Bay, off Portland, that killed a nurse, a paramedic and a patient. Accident investigators said the pilot of the helicopter, which was not equipped to fly by instruments, continued as weather worsened.

Outrage lingered for years. The public and state officials "wanted to know we wouldn't be risking lives instead of saving them," said Peter Chalke, president of Central Maine Medical.

Maine had an extensive network of ground ambulances and local paramedics, and "we wanted to add to that, not displace it," Judge said. Indeed, only a sliver of the state's 260,000 emergency medical calls a year result in a helicopter flight. LifeFlight responds to about 1,400 trips annually or one-half of 1 percent of the emergency medical service calls, a level far below that of many helicopter services.

Fewer than 3 percent of the patients admitted by LifeFlight are discharged from the hospital in less than 24 hours, indicating that they were in serious condition when they arrived.

Incoming trauma patients stay an average of six days at Central Maine Medical, said Lawrence Hopperstead, the hospital's chief medical officer. The helicopters also extend the hospital's reach into more distant communities, bumping the potential patient pool from 240,000 to about 400,000, Hopperstead said.

Judge said some in the helicopter debate suggest that Maine is Nirvana, because hospitals cooperate, nearby state programs help cover border areas and safety upgrades are easier for a fleet of two.

Harsher opponents hint darkly that the state might have too few helicopters, at the expense of patient care.

"That's thrown in slyly at different points, yes. But it's not like we have people lying on the sides of roads up here," Judge said.

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