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Published: Wednesday, 6/25/2003

N.W. Ohio is getting 2 more air ambulances

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Northwest Ohio soon will have the largest number of medical helicopters in the state, surpassing even large metropolitan areas like Cleveland and Columbus.

ProMedica Air of Toledo is adding two helicopters, bringing its fleet to three.

Life Flight, a rival medical helicopter service jointly operated by St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center and Medical College of Ohio Hospitals, has four.

ProMedica intends to base a helicopter at its hospital in Defiance by mid-August and add another helicopter somewhere else in northwest Ohio by the end of the year. ProMedica officials said they haven't decided where to place the second helicopter, though several EMS providers in the region said they've heard Fostoria is a likely candidate.

The two BO105 American Eurocopter twin-turbine helicopters cost about $800,000 apiece.

The largest Ohio medical helicopter service now is MedFlight, which serves the Columbus area with five helicopters.

ProMedica Air, which started operations in 1999, currently has one $5.3 million helicopter based at Toledo Hospital, which like ProMedica Air, is owned by ProMedica Health System. That helicopter provides coverage within about a 150-mile radius of Toledo, and is larger and has more capabilities than the two ProMedica is adding.

The dominant medical helicopter service in northwest Ohio is Life Flight, which began operating in 1979. One of its helicopters is based at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, one at Bluffton, one at Sandusky Regional Airport, and one at Fulton County Airport. Each Life Flight helicopter costs $3 million to $3.7 million.

Depending on whom one talks to, the expansion is either a great idea or an unwelcome duplication of services.

“I think it's great news,” said Defiance Fire Chief Bill Wilkins. “I look at this as an improvement of community services.”

ProMedica officials estimate its average response times to scenes in the Defiance area will be cut by 15 minutes by basing a helicopter at the Defiance hospital.

That saved time could be the difference between life or death in some cases, Mr. Wilkins said.

Life Flight officials aren't so thrilled with the expansion, pointing out a Life Flight helicopter based near Wauseon is only a nine-minute flight from Defiance. In a statement, Life Flight officials said the additional ProMedica helicopter “is a duplication of existing community resources.”

Emergency response officials in some area communities tended to agree.

“I don't know why we need it myself,” said Jerry Oxender, director of the Williams County EMS and a paramedic. “I have concerns we're going to get into a helicopter war.”

Gladeen Roberts, president of ProMedica Continuing Care Corp., insisted adding the two helicopters is not a competitive move.

“This is not a helicopter war,” she said.

ProMedica studied trauma needs in northwest Ohio and found a clear void in the Defiance area, especially for medical helicopter service, she said. Cutting down on response time will save lives, and save money down the road because patients taken to hospitals quicker can have faster, and potentially cheaper, recovery times.

Dr. David Lindstrom, medical director for ProMedica Transportation Network, said each added helicopter will serve the area it is based in out to about a 40-mile radius. The added helicopters aren't meant to fly all over the area and compete with other services.

Rod Crane, president of MedFlight in the Columbus area, said basing helicopters throughout a region instead of at one hospital is a smart move.

“It makes the resources closer, and that first hour of trauma care is very important,” he said, adding that MedFlight's helicopters are based throughout its region, not all in one place.

That said, Mr. Crane said he's a big believer in shared services, not competition, when it comes to medical helicopter services. His own program, which covers the largest geographic area of any Ohio medical helicopter service, is the result of a merger.

Emergency response crews in some rural communities said the competition is creating in the words of Napoleon Fire Chief Lynn Hancock, “bad blood” among EMS crews.

Some crews, and even individual crew members in the same department, favor one service over the other. That loyalty carried to the extreme can result in crews waiting too long for their favorite service unnecessarily, Mr. Hancock said.

Brad Peebles, assistant fire chief in Lyons, agreed, saying he wished the two services would consider a merger.

In fact, ProMedica had quietly approached Life Flight officials last year about merging or combining assets, according to letters obtained by The Blade. The letters were between ProMedica and Mercy Health Partners, which is one of the owners of Life Flight.

The two sides met once in August, with Life Flight expressing openness to the idea of collaborating. But by late last year, communications had broken down and neither side could agree on a second meeting.

Life Flight officials insist they tried repeatedly to restart communications. ProMedica Air officials said they wanted to first discuss sharing global positioning data with Life Flight separate from any merger discussion, and Life Flight refused.

GPS data allows helicopters to fly by instruments in bad weather. Life Flight has the second-largest GPS system in use by medical helicopters in the world, according to Stephen Hickok, co-owner of Alabama-based Satellite Technology Implementation, which developed the GPS network for Life Flight in 1999.

Mr. Hickok said GPS networks allow helicopters to fly hospital to hospital by instruments alone, improving safety in adverse weather.



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