Thursday, January 26, 2012

Air ambulance had to stand by after chopper crash

Fatal crash An air ambulance had to delay taking off after this helicopter crashed at the Region of Waterloo International Airport.
Robert Wilson/Record staff

BRESLAU — An Ontario air ambulance delayed taking off from Toronto when called to a helicopter crash at the regional airport, frustrating paramedics who struggled to get to the scene.

A paramedic attending the crash felt that had the ambulance helicopter been faster, it “would have been a lot closer to the patient and we would have had an easier time getting the patient out,” said John Prno, regional director of emergency medical services.

Pilot Tiffany Hanna died at the crash site Nov. 28. Flight student Scott Puillandre was badly injured but survived.

The takeoff delay triggered an investigation by the Ministry of Health and an internal review by the Ornge air ambulance service. Regional government is also reviewing the troubled emergency response to the crash.

According to a timeline prepared by The Record, the two-seater helicopter crashed into an airport drainage pond at 11:32 a.m. Emergency dispatchers immediately requested an air ambulance. But the air ambulance did not rush to the Region of Waterloo International Airport.

Instead, its crew stood by in Toronto waiting for a regional ambulance to get there and assess if rescue by air was needed. That’s under a policy, since rescinded, to delay takeoff if a land ambulance is 10 minutes from a crash.

“It was a money-saving practice,” Prno said. “Every time a helicopter takes off it costs them a lot of money. And they were ending up cancelling a lot of flights.”

It actually took paramedics up to 19 minutes to reach Puillandre and a further 34 minutes to load him into an ambulance, according to the newspaper timeline. They were delayed by confusion over location, uncertain communication among emergency dispatchers and rough terrain.

By this time, the air ambulance was still not on its final approach to the airport. Following provincial policy, paramedics did not wait but rushed the injured survivor to Grand River Hospital in Kitchener. “If they’re not there, we’re going to a hospital,” Prno said.

The air ambulance flew to the heliport near the hospital and collected Puillandre for transport to Hamilton.

Prno does not believe Hanna could have been saved. The pilot died before emergency responders arrived.

This month Ornge abandoned its policy of waiting before takeoff.

“We’re happy that they’ve made this change,” Prno said. It’s now more likely an air ambulance will reach the scene before paramedics are ready to leave, he said.

Ornge spokesperson James MacDonald explained by email that the provincial service started delaying takeoffs last June “to reduce the number of calls where our helicopter was cancelled en route, which have been a concern both from an aircraft availability and cost perspective.”

That was before a policy review found “unexpected delays in helicopter response.” MacDonald would not comment further on investigations into the Nov. 28 crash.

Ornge is currently facing three reviews, including two audits by provincial ministries and an internal review.

Regional politicians have promised a public report on the helicopter crash, amid renewed calls to streamline 911 dispatch systems that struggled to respond.

Up to six dispatch services were involved, including police dispatchers, two fire dispatch systems, land ambulance dispatchers, air ambulance dispatchers and a separate airport system.

Prno said emergency responders intend to learn from the crash. “There were a lot of unusual things that happened that day,” he said.

What else went wrong?

A Record probe into the Nov. 28 helicopter crash found that:

The rescue launched in confusion after a 911 call from the airport control tower misidentified the location of the crash.

The airport fire truck could have reached the crash within three minutes in ideal conditions. But it took 12 minutes to get there and arrived damaged after exiting the airport and colliding with part of a security gate.

Cambridge and Woolwich firefighters did not know where the helicopter crashed even after a second 911 call clarified the location and even after Waterloo Regional Police reached the scene.

Fire dispatchers were so confused they tried to send the wrong firefighters from 23 kilometres away in Wilmot Township. When Woolwich Township firefighters were correctly dispatched, they did not know the crash location until almost seven minutes after police reached the scene.


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