Farewell to Air Com

For just under a year, I worked at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction as a Communications Specialist in their telephone office, known as “PBX” to those familiar with the hospital’s operations.

The dedicated staff of that stuffy, windowless room, some of whom have been there for over 25 years, also took on the duties of receiving requests and coordinating the helicopter and fixed wing resources of what is now called St. Mary’s CareFlight. The flight program, originally called Air Life, changed names when the hospital switched aircraft and maintenance vendors from Englewood-based Air Methods to Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI). “St. Mary’s Air Com” was the telephone and radio voice of the program.

One of the toughest calls I have ever had to make as a communications professional was to St. Mary’s on February 28, 2001. I had to inform them that a helicopter had crashed in the Whitewater area, and knowing that their ship was out on a maintenance test flight at the time, could they check it’s status? The voice on the radio repeatedly trying to reach CareFlight afterward, without success, still resonates with me. The program lost a pilot in the crash.

As of today, St. Mary’s Air Com has gone silent. As Paul Shockley reports in today’s Daily Sentinel, the hospital elected to outsource its communications needs to a communications center in Phoenix operated by PHI.

St. Mary’s VP for PR Dan Prinster is quoted in the story as stating that the ability for PBX to answer CareFlight calls was somehow impacted by the operators being “barraged by a lot of other calls”. Having been in the room for a year, I’d have to agree and disagree with that statement. The PBX workstations and job assignments were set up so that the operator handling CareFlight would typically be the last to answer other phone lines, and could take themselves out of the call distribution queue when a flight request was in process.

This being said, the hospital apparently could not justify setting up a separate communications center that could handle CareFlight and other hospital resources such as Security and Engineering. As a result, you have what happened today.

This practice has become somewhat of a trend in the air medical industry. Air Methods operates a communications center in Omaha, Nebraska that handles requests and aircraft coordination for numerous flight programs across the country. I was offered a position there in 2010, but turned it down. I wasn’t ready to move yet, and got a local job offer that made more sense at the time.

This trend has affected air medical operations in my the area of my new home as well. Pittsburgh-based STAT Medevac, which started with one aircraft in 1985, now coordinates 17 aircraft across 4 states and Washington DC from one communications center here. Air Evac Lifeteam, which operates and coordinates nearly 100 aircraft from headquarters in Missouri, has a ship in East Liverpool, Ohio and 4 aircraft based across West Virginia.

Is this a good trend? I believe it depends on the nature of the flight program. Some hospital-based air medical programs have re-engineered their communication centers into “transfer centers” that can act as a one-call destination for outlying facilities needing to get a patient accepted by a physician, transported, and admitted to a facility capable of providing more specialized care. The flight program I worked for in the 80’s and 90’s is an example of this model.

As much as I feel for the “Comm Specs” at St. Mary’s Air Com, I did not believe that their operation was sustainable in this operational climate. That’s why I sought to attend a school that would certify me for more complex work with aircraft of all types, and left St. Mary’s in pursuit of that.

Two years ago I was in San Jose for the annual conference of the leading trade group for the air medical industry. Ironically, October 19 marked the conclusion of this year’s conference in St. Louis, and along with it the end of an all too short tenure for a small center and a dedicated group of communicators.

Best wishes to those impacted by the closing.

Have a good weekend ahead.

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