By Stan Ashbee
Alberta Newspaper Group
In May 2018, HALO Rescue introduced a twin-engine helicopter — the BK 117 B2— which will enable the invaluable life-saving service to better meet the requirements of the Air Ambulance designation. This new helicopter substantively increases the service level to all citizens within HALO’s service area. However, it also more than doubles the costs to the program. The new addition became operational in October of last year.
HALO offers the only dedicated medivac helicopter for southern Alberta and southwest Saskatchewan. The service is a much-needed contribution to the already established air and Alberta Health Services (AHS) EMS ground ambulances. The availability of the helicopter improves response time to trauma victims in remote or inaccessible areas and increases the coverage area for delivering Qualitative Medical Care.
Medicine Hat resident and HALO chief pilot Steve Harmer, who has been flying for the service for close to three years, said HALO is very pleased with the new ride. “It’s really been a performance enhancer for the program.”
Harmer said the new helicopter is a little bit faster than its predecessor and has a lot more room in the back. “Being twin-engine, it has more capability because it’s now allowed to land in Calgary — where the old machine couldn’t land on the rooftops and in Lethbridge. It gives the paramedics significantly more room in the back to be able to work on a casualty on route,” he explained.
According to Harmer, the powers that be didn’t quite realize just how much of a performance enhancement the new helicopter would be. “It has really given the region a massive increase in capability for our AHS and the medical staff. The old aircraft was very good, but this one has just taken it to a whole new level. It’s a bit like you’ve had an old Ford Model T and somebody has delivered the latest brand new pickup truck to you. They both can do the same job and they’re both fairly good at it, but one is significantly superior to the other,” he noted.
As of Feb. 22, Harmer said there were four calls for service including being dispatched to a scene south of Taber last week. “There’s obviously a need for it in this part of southern Alberta. There was a very nasty crash south of Taber. We went there with STARS — STARS did a great job, but they don’t cover the area we live in. STARS were launched before us to go to that scene, but we still made it there 10 minutes before STARS. That just shows the people of Taber and that whole area how much of an improvement service we provide.”
There was also a recent ski rescue, where a backcountry skier had broken their leg some considerable distance from the road. “Again, the helicopter made a big difference there. We were able to find the individual very quickly and land within 30 or 40 metres of the individual. They were looking at probably the better part of an hour to get them down the hill to the ambulance and then they’ve got to drive along some fairly rough roads in icy conditions to hit a main road (Highway 41) and then they’ve got to get from there to the Medicine Hat Hospital, so there’s two hours straight away. It took us, once we loaded the casualty at the top of the hill at the start of that whole sequence, it took us 13 minutes to have him in the Medicine Hat Hospital,” Harmer said.
“There’s where it’s not necessarily just life-saving — it can be an improvement in quality of life and treatment and care. The helicopter’s definitely made quite a big difference,” he added.
Harmer said in the future HALO hopes to provide that same level of service, regardless of it is light or dark during the day or night for next winter.
“I have a considerable night vision goggle background. In fact, I did the first-ever night vision goggle recovery of a Canadian civilian in history, so there’s some significant history with us there. I’d like to be able to bring that online,” he said.
It’s up to AHS to determine if it is warranted for the service to be provided 24/7, because it’s quite a significant increase in cost, he added.
“What we can do is give them the same level of service in the summer, as in the winter.”
Harmer said the vast majority of HALO’s funding comes from donations. “If it wasn’t for the people in our region and the companies and the support we get, there would be no service. HALO is a tremendously cost-effective service and probably the best one in Canada. However, the amount of funds that come in from the governments only support a small portion of the program.”
It was very gratifying the other day, Harmer added, at the recent road accident near Taber and several of the first responders said, “We were sure HALO would come, when we called them.”
“That’s really a nice response. We do our best to support our area and obviously safety is paramount and not something we erode in anyway. However, once you are south of Highway 3 and east of Lethbridge and all the way to the border — two borders, the Saskatchewan and the southern border — really, we are one of your best options. And the new helicopter has the ability to get all the way to say Milk River and still make Calgary Foothills Hospital if we need to. We’re the only helicopter that can do that in the south, not even the Calgary model can do that with STARS. They would need a refuel to be able to go that far out and come back again,” Harmer said.