Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Travis County, Texas, to replace STAR Flight helicopters for $34 million

Travis County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to spend roughly $34 million to replace the county’s aging fleet of helicopters used for emergency medical transportation, search-and-rescue operations and fire suppression.

The county’s costs will be reduced from the sale of the helicopters, a $10 million donation over five years from the Seton Family of Hospitals and the restructuring of county funds. About $11 million to $14 million will need to be debt-financed by fiscal year 2019, staff estimated.

The helicopters, two 2005 models, one 2009 model and a refurbished Vietnam-era UH-1/”Huey,” are in need of routine replacement, officials said. That contract will come up for approval by the court likely some time next month.

The “Huey,” which is configured for firefighting and was bought a year after the Labor Day wildfires of 2011, has been significantly underused, as the American-Statesman reported. All four helicopters will be sold, and all but the “Huey” will be replaced.

“We don’t want an expensive program to be decided with emotion, like right after a wildfire,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “In 20-20 hindsight, we probably should not have purchased that. And I think we need to be honest with the public about that.”

The STAR Flight program, founded in 1985, provides life-saving services to Travis County residents facing emergency situations, including rescue from trauma scenes not easily accessible on the ground.

A May staff memo showed that calls for service were primarily for emergency medical services, at 83 percent of calls, followed by search and rescue at 11 percent and fire suppression at 1 percent.

The added capabilities of the three added aircraft will “easily replace” those provided by the fourth helicopter, “while providing a safer and more modern fleet,” county staff said in a memo. Some of those include the ability to fly longer distances and carry more water for fire suppression.

“We’re reducing our fleet but maintaining our capacity,” Eckhardt said.

The county’s planning and budget office will in coming months return to the court with its recommendation on whether to use a broker to sell the three aircraft or trade them in to the manufacturer. The “Huey” will be sold using a broker.

Commissioners also had considered keeping the existing fleet (which officials said would have cost at least 72 percent more in scheduled maintenance costs than a new fleet) or reducing the fleet to two helicopters.

Commissioners Brigid Shea and Gerald Daugherty on Tuesday expressed reservations about the hefty price tag.

“I’ve got heartburn around the cost we’re taking on,” Shea said. “I guess maybe one way to do this is just to make sure we get regular updates on what is happening with the revenue and … maintenance costs and all that kind of thing because a lot’s riding on those assumptions.”

Daugherty also urged the county’s emergency services department to keep the court aware of the state of its revenue.

“You have to be very vigilant about collections. … That is the business part of this thing because some people will skate on this,” Daugherty said, referring to uncompensated costs.

Commissioners on Tuesday held off on deciding whether to hire six new flight staff members, which would allow two helicopters to be available 24/7 all year. As of now, two helicopters are available all year during the day, and one at night, the memo stated.

Commissioners will also consider hiring a “strategic sustainability and outreach manager” to seek out grants and raise money for the program.

The vote Tuesday come after STAR Flight in August tripled its fees for Travis County patient transport to increase revenue and lighten the burden on taxpayers.

Insurance companies now pay a $15,000 base rate and $200 per mile, up from $4,500 for county residents and $9,500 for non-county residents, and $165 per mile. Individuals pay deductibles and co-pays according to their insurance plans.

Original article can be found here ➤ http://www.mystatesman.com

TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas - Travis County's  fleet of StarFlight helicopters looks like new, but with about 700 flights a year they're more than slightly used  and apparently about to go up for sale after a vote by Travis County Commissioners Tuesday morning.

Selling the four helicopters is part of a plan to upgrade capabilities and avoid escalating maintenance costs.

"We could keep the fleet, and continue to operate, but there is no room for capacity, no room for extra growth, we can’t carry any more water it won’t do any more than the things that it does, and here's the cost of keep the fleet and that’s one of the analysts the budget office did,” said StarFlight Program Director Casey Ping.

Three options were presented to county commissioners all came with a heavy price tag over a 10 year period.

-Keeping the existing fleet - was estimated to cost $31.6 million.

-reducing the fleet to only two helicopters totaled $21.6 million.

-Buying and operating three new helicopters - over a 10 year period- came in at $24.4 million.

Commissioner Brigid Shea had a case of sticker shock.

"It’s such a big amount to swallow; I guess I’m trying to figure out if there is a way to phase it. It’s like eating an elephant, it’s hard to do all at once,” said Shea.

Selling the older fleet is expected to raise about a third of the total cost for replacement. An agreement with Seton was also pitched to ease the pinch. The hospital group is pledging $10-million over five years to the program. Seton made the offer because it wants to reach deeper into rural Texas and offer patients more hi-tech care.

"We have no growth capacity in our current aircraft, it would be like the first cellphone you bought 12 years ago, and you are comparing that to what’s available to you now,” said StarFlight Director of Aviation Chuck Spangler

To help pay for the extra cost -- the price for being transported on StarFlight went up last month. There is also going to be an effort to get some of the other metro area counties to contribute into the program, that’s because of the fire and rescue coverage StarFlight provides outside of Travis County.

With different type of aircraft in the fleet, like the Huey, and the Eurocopter, StarFlight has had to have different types of stands for maintenance and operation. So the plan is to have one single platform.

The Leonardo AW 169 is the helicopter StarFlight managers want. It holds more crew and more equipment than the Eurocopter 145 flown by StarFlight. The AW 169 also eliminates the use of 100 gallon bambi buckets to fight fires. The Eurocopters have been critical in battling recent wildfires, but the water drops are limited. The AW 169 has an on-board 300 gallon tank.

"Having a fixed tank, we will be able to fill it with ground resources or it shows up with that water allows us to be more flexible,” said AFD Division Chief Palmer Buck.

The new helicopter also eliminates the need for the older Huey which was purchased in 2013.  It also has a 300 gallon onboard water tank, but the Huey was refurbished when Travis County bought it and is not as agile as the new helicopter.

County Commissioners are expected to look at the contract for the purchase of 3 aw 169 helicopters in early October.

Original article can be found here ➤ http://www.fox7austin.com

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