Audio Sidebar: Two Helicopters, One Patient, Mixed Signals

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 21, 2009
11:07 AM

On the afternoon of June 30, 2008, two medical helicopters departed for a South Carolina hospital to pick up a car accident victim and fly him to a trauma center in Charlotte.

The crews didn't know they had been called for the same patient until they were about five minutes from the hospital, audio records show.

The event occurred just a day after a collision of two medical helicopters over Flagstaff, Ariz., that killed seven.

Audiotapes obtained by The Washington Post under a North Carolina public records act capture exchanges with the crews and with a doctor caring for the car accident patient. He expressed surprise that two helicopters were en route. "What the hell? All I wanted was one bird.... One of them needs to go back."

One crew was from MedCenter Air based at the trauma center for Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. The request for its helicopter came from the local hospital through a central communications center that handles MedCenter Air's flights.

The other crew worked for Regional One, a program based in Spartanburg, S.C.. That crew was requested by a nurse who worked for Regional One and also was working part time at the local hospital, said Reid Vogel, spokesman for Med-Trans Air, which runs the Regional One flights. The nurse called directly to a Regional One crew, rather than through the company's communication center, Vogel said. Vogel said that the company asks for requests to go through its communications center and that it is a "rare occasion" when a crew is called directly at its base.

Jason Schwebach, director of the MedCenter Air program, said in an interview that he viewed the incident as a "near mishap." He said the incident was an example of why flight requests should be centrally dispatched and why helicopter crews from different programs need to be in contact throughout their flights.

Vogel said the two crews talked to each other as they approached the helipad and coordinated their landings. A Med-Trans review of the flight, Vogel said, found "no safety issue" occurred at any time.

The MedCenter Air crew aborted its flight nearing the helipad and returned to its base. The Regional One crew landed and then flew the car accident victim from Springs Memorial Hospital in Lancaster. S.C., to the Charlotte trauma center.

Springs Memorial Hospital said in a statement that the event was "highly unusual" and that the hospital "has re-educated its employees and physicians about the appropriate processes for requesting air transports."

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