AMY J. CORRENTI | RRSTAR.COM
Mechanic Matt Anderson does an engine inspection Monday, Oct. 24, 2011, on a Lifeline helicopter at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford.
ROCKFORD — OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center celebrates 30 years of its Lifeline medical helicopter program Wednesday, and staff say health system officials have invested in major equipment upgrades and training during the last few years to make the aircraft more dependable and in demand for the region.
Officials will rededicate the helicopter this afternoon just as efforts are ramping up to bring a new one to the medical center. Peoria-based OSF Aviation, which is part of Saint Anthony’s parent system OSF HealthCare, has ordered four new EC145 helicopters to replace its current fleet.
The new helicopters will be delivered and put into service by next summer.
The Illinois Department of Transportation provided the first medical helicopter to the Rockford region in 1981. Officials at Rockford’s three hospitals agreed that OSF would staff it and the aircraft would be based at the medical center.
At the time, it was the first hospital-based helicopter in the state and the 13th in the nation.
The Rockford crew now is using its fourth helicopter since then, a Bell 230 aircraft it received in 2006. That’s the same year OSF Aviation formed to serve as a vendor to both Lifeline and Life Flight at Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria.
Last year, health system officials started making major upgrades of the four helicopters in OSF’s fleet, including the one in Rockford.
Medical staff now have night vision goggles that help them see during evening hours. The goggles also help them steer clear of trees and electrical wires during flight and assist with landings in rural areas.
The helicopter is also equipped with a traffic collision avoidance system that helps avoid other aircraft and a warning system that also helps pilots avoid obstacles during flight.
Pilot Don Kilgore said older helicopter technology was more “reactionary than proactive” in dealing with obstacles. The helicopters today also have improved positional reporting and phone systems.
The Lifeline helicopter is certified to fly by instrument flight rules, which means pilots have the technology and training to fly and land when visibility is lower during bad weather. There’s still a strict rule that all members of the flight crew — nurse, paramedic and pilot — have to agree to accept and continue the flight.
“It takes three people to say ‘go,’” said Kim Jerie, chief nurse for the Lifeline program. “If somebody is not comfortable, it takes one person to say ‘no.’ There are no repercussions. We train all of our people to speak up.”
“It comes down to capabilities, even among the pilots,” Kilgore said. “There are pilots running at different personal capabilities. I might turn down a flight and another guy might take the flight.
These guys are running at their own particular personal comfort zones. And we want people to say — sometimes it’s just that gut feeling — ‘Hey, I’m just not comfortable with this.’”
Lifeline is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation with 17 medical crew members, four pilots and two mechanics. Jerie said the helicopter goes out on about two calls a day, but that’s just an average — some days, there are no calls; other days there can be six or seven calls.
The majority of the helicopter’s work is in transferring patients from hospital to hospital, and the crew works with hospitals generally within a 50-mile but up to an 80-mile radius. About 20 percent of the helicopter’s calls are for on-scene responses, like car crashes or farming accidents.
In that respect, Jerie said, the crew has a great working relationship with local emergency medical service agencies. The groups have worked together to establish preprogrammed rendezvous points in rural areas where the helicopter can meet ambulances and emergency personnel in areas that are obstacle-free and clearly marked.
For instance, the ethanol plant in Lena is a rendezvous point. Officials there keep an area mowed where the helicopter can land and installed windsocks to mark the area.
“I feel blessed to have my job and work with the crews I work with,” said Karen Daub-Larson, a flight nurse. “Working for OSF, it’s a very good company, and knowing that they put safety first for us in the aircraft makes our job easier to do.”