By Jamie Rieger
Time is the most vital resource when a patient has to be quickly transported to the hospital and in southern Alberta, people can rely on the HALO Medevac Rescue Helicopter to get the job done.
It has been a decade since the HALO medevac rescue helicopter first began serving southeast Alberta as part of a pilot project to determine whether or not such a service was needed in this corner of the province.
“Initially, it started as a pilot project trying to measure the need and after 29 rescues the first year, I think they (AHS and STARS) were surprised that the need was there,” said HALO chair, Dale Thacker. “At the same time, they knew how many rescues were being made by ground ambulance.”
On July 4, HALO is celebrating its 10 years of service and over the last decade, have been dispatched to approximately 200 missions. Still, they continue to lobby the Alberta government in providing funding to keep this vital service in the air while relying on fundraisers and sponsorship. While their services are essential, they receive no financial support from the provincial government, other than a per-call stipend; so fundraising and public awareness campaigns have become a major part of what they do.
In addition, when the economy, and more specifically, the oil and gas industry, took a deep dive south, the contributions to HALO started to dwindle as oil and gas companies were some of their largest contributors. However, the economic downturn proved to be a turning point for HALO as other industries, including agriculture stepped up to the plate.
“It has been a roller coaster, but it always seemed like the support came from somewhere,” said Thacker.
HALO has also been raising public awareness by attending community events and holding fundraisers to keep the helicopter in the air. And, the public has responded in a very positive way.
“There are noticeable gains now from the public who understand we are needed,” said chair, Dale Thacker. “We are more in the public eye now and people know that the money they donate goes where it is supposed to go.”
For example, the HALO golf tournament in Bow island on June 16 raised in excess of $20,000 for the organization and other fundraisers throughout southern Alberta have been equally successful.
HALO has expanded its service area into southwest Saskatchewan, with some Rural Municipalities contributing to the organization. Former Cypress MLA Wayne Elhart attended HALO’s grand opening 10 years ago and HALO remains in contact with Doug Steele, the current MLA for the Cypress constituency in Saskatchewan.
“At first, we stayed within our cocoon and restricted ourselves to the Palliser Health Region.” said Thacker, adding that Air Ambulance falls under the jurisdiction of Transport Canada.
Thacker also said the some Rural Municipalities in Saskatchewan recognize the need for the rescue helicopter service in the region and do financially support HALO.
Working with STARS over the years has come with its share of challenges for HALO and Thacker says they continue to negotiate to provide the best service for those who are in need of quick response time.
“It’s simple. We’re covering areas STARS can’t. Our helicopter has a three-hour range. STARS has only two,” said Thacker. “The whole golden hour thing goes sideways if it takes an hour-and-a-half to get there and just because you can go for 1-1/2 hours, it doesn’t mean you should.”
There have been situations were HALO will meet up with STARS to get a patient to the hospital in Calgary.
“STARS are very good at what they do, but they are too far away. If you have to re-fuel, you are too far away,” said Thacker. “We do rendezvous with STARS all the time and it works well.”
When the economic slowdown took place, it had an impact on the donations to HALO, but as they increased the public awareness through community events and fundraisers, more people started contributing.
“The change started then because people were afraid they were going to lose us,” said Thacker. “We are not out of the woods yet, but at least the public is now saying we are needed and we are gaining traction like never before.”