March 14, 1997

LifeFlight to add second helicopter – New craft to benefit trauma, cardiac, pediatric patients.

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Vanderbilt’s LifeFlight air ambulance service is getting some help with the arrival of a second helicopter.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s LifeFlight helicopter is getting some much-needed help.

On April 1 the air ambulance service will begin operating two helicopters from the landing pad perched above the emergency room instead of one — a move which officials say will better serve the needs of Middle Tennessee trauma patients while at the same time bolstering cardiac and pediatric transports from VUMC’s referral community.

“Currently, LifeFlight is unable to respond to as many as 20 to 30 flights a month for reasons not related to weather,” said Linda Passini, LifeFlight program manager, and chief flight nurse. “Our hope is that with the additional aircraft, LifeFlight will be in a better position to serve the needs of the outlying communities.”

Until now, the program has had but one air ambulance to serve a region that stretches out in a 150-mile radius from its hub at Vanderbilt.

“The second aircraft is designed to supplement the 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week service that LifeFlight currently provides this community,” said Dr. John A. Morris, associate professor of Surgery, director of the division of Trauma, and medical director of LifeFlight.

“The new aircraft will be equipped to meet the needs of cardiac patients. Its hours of operation will be designed to maximize the benefit to our referral community for cardiac transports,” Morris said.

The new two-aircraft system will be phased in, with a temporary helicopter being used for about six weeks until the permanent aircraft arrives in mid-May. “Eventually what we will be flying is our current aircraft, and the new updated one,” Passini said.

Since the program’s inception in 1984, LifeFlight has flown nearly 12,000 transports and has served as a lifeline to patients in the Middle Tennessee and Southern Kentucky area.

Morris estimates that with only the single aircraft, up to 40 percent of calls for LifeFlight service ‹ which often come in simultaneously — cannot be accommodated.

“Our average flight is about 70 miles, so the average round trip flight time is somewhere around 90 minutes. We can stack flights up, but the acuity of some of these patients suggests that alternative helicopter transportation is sometimes more appropriate,” Morris said.

The air ambulance service is busier than ever, logging 67 flights in January, more than any January during the last six years, according to Passini.

During “trauma season,” which runs from April through October, the number of flights rises dramatically. Within this hectic period, LifeFlight can average between 70 and 100 flights per month ‹ up to 40 more flights per month than during the rest of the year.

“During the month of April our flights really start to pick up. That’s why we set a target date of April 1 for the new aircraft to go into operation,” Passini said.

The additional helicopter will support the increased demand during these busy months, and to assist with non-trauma flights, such as cardiac patients referred from outlying areas. Both aircraft will have the same team configuration of two flight nurses and one pilot, Passini said.

The initial plan is for one helicopter to be available around the clock, with the second in operation during hours when the need is greatest.

“The second aircraft¹s hours of operation will be designed to maximize the benefit to our referral community,” Morris said.

In addition to their expertise at caring for car accident victims and other trauma patients, the LifeFlight nurses are adept at handling patients with cardiac and respiratory problems. Passini says that during the fall and spring there is an increase in the number of pediatric patients in respiratory distress that need LifeFlight¹s service.

Presently, if LifeFlight receives two requests for its services at the same time, the attending physician in charge of triage for the emergency department must make the decision as to which patient needs the air transport the most. With the second helicopter, more patients will have better access to the program¹s services.

Because the LifeFlight program wanted to have both aircraft available this Spring, the temporary helicopter won’t look exactly like the present aircraft with its familiar white, black, and gold color scheme. When the new permanent aircraft arrives in mid-May however, the two should look virtually identical.

The only significant difference in the two permanent aircraft will be in the onboard flight instrumentation, and some equipment specific to cardiac care.

“Our new aircraft will have autopilot so that we can do single-pilot instrument flight rated (IFR) flights,” Passini said. “This will allow us to take this aircraft on longer flights that we have not been able to make before because of weather.”

Because LifeFlight pilots until now had to rely solely on eyesight to navigate safely, the distance and location of acceptable flights depended on the cloud cover and visibility.

“The new aircraft will allow us to accept flights that were formerly below our weather minimums,” Passini said.

News of the additional aircraft and increased access to Vanderbilt¹s trauma service has been received with enthusiasm from outlying emergency medical service personnel.

“Definitely the new aircraft, with its ability to fly in increased weather situations, will be a big help to us,” said Greg Galfano, director of Williamson County Medical Center’s Emergency Medical Service. “The weather has been our primary problem in getting access to LifeFlight.”

“We like to think of ourselves as a progressive ambulance service, and this helps to provide the citizens of Williamson County the best access to care.”