A Vancouver man who has been a pilot and worked in the aircraft industry says the dedicated air ambulance helicopter announced for this region last month is inadequate and would work better with a non-profit organization behind it.
But one of the Kamloops residents involved in the lobby effort for the service disagrees, saying all air ambulance helicopters have limitations and the parties involved are making the best decisions possible.
Hans Dysartz was involved with the creation 26 years ago of the STARS non-profit air ambulance in Alberta, which is now moving into Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
He said he doesn’t speak on behalf of STARS, but saw how communities rallied around the air service with support and donations.
It also means STARS operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with helicopters that have de-icing and night vision capabilities.
He has talked with B.C. politicians for years about setting up a similar system here, so he was particularly irked when Premier Christy Clark announced on Aug. 30 a dedicated air service for the Thompson Okanagan that the province is funding.
Donations of all kinds pour into STARS every year, keeping costs lower than they would for a government-funded service, Dysartz said.
“The current model doesn’t give them that option to get involved. By involving them at this level, people in the communities build their own helipads, add their own navigation aids. In one town in Alberta, the community groups put out fuel caches for the helicopters,” he said.
“Community spirit was fantastic.”
But Bob Gray, who has been involved with a couple of groups trying to get air ambulance in Kamloops, said a similar model was tried a few years ago and failed.
BEARS didn’t get off the ground like STARS did because it didn’t have the oil and gas money that STARS did, for one reason, he said.
“BEARS tried it here. There is a totally different corporate mentality and citizen mentality in B.C. than there is in Alberta,” he said.
He commended STARS for its success, while noting flying conditions are also different in B.C. than in Alberta.
“When you start looking at the whole history, the whole evolution, it’s apples and oranges.”
Dysartz was also critical of the Bell 412 currently being used in Kamloops for air ambulance, but Gray noted it’s commonly used for air ambulance work.
Last month’s announcement didn’t specify what type of helicopter would be used in Kamloops, he added. It will go out for a call for proposals to meet specific requirements.
“It’s generated a huge amount of interest across Canada because it’s created an opportunity,” Gray said.
Cameron Heke, STARS manager of media and public relations, said in a telephone interview from Calgary that 75 per cent of the organization’s funding comes from corporate donations and grassroots fundraising. The remainder is from government health service agreements.
STARS flies to emergencies as much as possible.
“We fly at night. All pilots are trained to use night vision goggles. We fly to remote locations, into mountainous areas, we do search and rescues as well from time to time,” said Heke.
Gray pointed out that some of the STARS helicopters were just grounded because of tail rotor problems. No chopper is perfect, he said.
“I really don’t care what flies here. The key is dedicated with a budget. The aircraft is yet to be determined.”
Dan Froom, a B.C. Ambulance Service spokesman, said the not-for-profit model might offer opportunities in the future.
But the provincewide system is cost effective, integrates air and ground transport and comes under government regulations, he said.
“There’s also the accountability that comes with being a provincial service,” he said.
“We’re tasked with providing emergency health services for the citizens of B.C. We don’t just provide air service. We provide emergency medical services to all of B.C.”
The type of helicopter that will be used for the dedicated service in Kamloops hasn’t been decided yet, he said. The Bell 412 was available and has worked so far, but that could change with the request for proposals.
“I have no idea what we’re going to end up with. We’ll put it out to industry, we’ll balance the need and assessment,” he said.