Are EMS Helicopter Profits Causing Excessive Risk and Fatal Accidents?

Another EMS helicopter tragedy, and three more are killed. This time, an 11:16PM crash near a school in Manchester, KY, while landing. NTSB investigators should soon announce if they found any problems with visibility (some witnesses reported patchy dense fog), or if there is evidence of either a mechanical failure or impacting an object (tree, pole or powerline?).

Here is a list of the four most-recent fatal EMS helicopter crashes (with links to NTSB reports). Note that non-fatal crashes are not included:
  • 6-6-13: (3) die in Kentucky
  • 2-22-13: (2) die in Oklahoma
  • 1-2-13: (3) die in Iowa
  • 12-10-12: (3) die in Illinois

These EMS helicopter accidents happen far too frequently. The most galling part is that past accident investigations have revealed some troubling industry details, yet nothing has changed. Specifically, helicopter patient transfers are worth big bucks – tens of thousands of dollars – so, there is an incentive to fly when flying is really not necessary. Such as, for patient transfers from hospital or nursing home to another location; cases where everything is stable and a far more economical patient transfer can happen (and more often than not WOULD HAPPEN if the family or other payees had a say).

This latest crash is reported to be without a patient; i.e., the pilot and two other crew members were returning from a mission. NTSB needs to take a close look at the history on these accidents and ask: how many of these are happening because the helicopter is being used instead of a ground vehicle, and when there is no clear urgency? How is the pay structured in these helicopter EMS programs? Are the incentives to fly, even in poor weather or dark conditions, such that crews incur more danger than they should? Is the risk for profit or for saving lives? And, is FAA doing anything to ensure helicopter EMS program risks are properly minimized?

As noted in a 2009 news posting at EMSflightCrew.com:

…A typical HEMS flight can generate a payment of $20,000 or more. To garner these payments, operators have an implicitly built-in incentive to fly — despite such proven deadly factors as marginal weather at night. One HEMS pilot described every patient as a golden trout. “We need to go get these trout,” he said, because of the generous Medicare reimbursement….
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It is one thing (and heroic) to fly into danger to truly save a life; it is just stupid (and greedy) to fly into hazard when a safer and more cost-effective alternative is available. Three precious lives were lost, and more families have been plunged into grief (again). This did not have to happen.

Let’s hope FAA and NTSB will be thorough and fully responsive to this tragedy, so this will not happen again.