State Copter Service Faulted, Defended at Legislative Hearing

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 12, 2009

More than 150 people, including emergency responders in uniform and relatives of those killed in a September helicopter crash, crowded into a legislative committee room yesterday for a hearing on three bills that would restructure the Maryland State Police medevac helicopter service.

Sens. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel) and E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's) have proposed that a company take over medevac missions while state police continue law enforcement flights. The other bills propose reimbursing companies that transport patients when the state police cannot and creating a Department of Emergency Services.

The senators said the medevac service needs reform, and not just because one of its helicopters crashed in Price George's County in September, killing four people.

A legislative audit released before the crash reported serious maintenance problems, a lack of adequate recordkeeping and high pilot turn-over. A report released by a panel of experts after the crash recommended that the state police follow the same flight rules as medevac companies and seek accreditation from an industry trade group.

"We owe it to those who died" to fix the program, Pipkin said. "Neither Senator Astle nor I will accept the 'stuff happens' excuse."

State police officials have proposed buying as many as 10 helicopters, at $20 million each, retrofitting the current fleet with $630,000 worth of safety equipment and putting two pilots on every flight. State police plan to upgrade their flight standards, and they think that accreditation is "a very good idea," though not a high priority, said Maj. A.J. McAndrew, the aviation commander.

Pipkin and Astle questioned the proposed expenditures and asked why the state police would replace 15- to 20-year-old helicopters with $20 million models when the D.C. National Guard recently replaced 30- to 40-year-old helicopters with $5 million models. Some of the helicopters being considered would require highly trained pilots and might be too heavy for some hospital landing pads, Pipkin said.

Pipkin also challenged Maryland's reputation as a national medevac role model. "No other state does it the way Maryland does it," he said.

State police and EMS leaders have said the bills don't have enough support to make it out of committee. On Tuesday, a House work group recommended that state police continue operating the medevac system and begin purchasing helicopters at the rate of three a year.

Those opposed to the bills passionately defended the medevac service. The Maryland EMS board chairman called the service "the envy of the other states." And the mother of the flight paramedic killed in the September crash pleaded to have the medevac program stay "in the hands of the Maryland State Police Aviation Command."

McAndrew recounted attending four funerals in four days after the helicopter crash. Although the system needs improvements, he said, he refuses to hand it over "to the cheapest bidder" -- prompting a standing ovation until the gavel sounded.

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