SALMON – A base for medical flights by helicopter is scheduled to be operational in July here in a first for a remote mountain town that sees more than 100 such airlifts per year tied to patients at the local hospital.
The company, Air Methods, has leased a hangar at Lemhi County Airport for a medium-sized, turbine helicopter that is to be used to transport those with medical needs within a 150-mile radius, including Idaho Falls and Missoula, Montana, said Gregg Hardy, business development manager for Air Idaho Rescue, the local branch of Denver-based Air Methods.
Flights are expected to be underway beginning in July using an aircraft that is to be equipped with a flight nurse and flight medic in addition to the pilot. The crew will be available around the clock — provided they are not already airborne with a medical evacuation — every day of the year in an arrangement that is expected to reduce or eliminate the wait time entailed in dispatching an aircraft from elsewhere to pick up a patient in Salmon, Hardy said.
The ability to quickly respond to the transportation needs of Salmon-area patients is crucial when it comes to such health emergencies as heart attacks and strokes, Hardy added.
Roughly 4 percent of patients who sought emergency services at Steele Memorial Hospital each year in a period from 2011 through 2016 were airlifted to other healthcare facilities, said hospital spokeswoman Jenny Tracy.
For example, 3,393 patients sought emergency care at Steele Memorial in 2011 and 135 of those were airlifted — by such outfits as Air Methods and Life Flight Network — to other medical facilities. More recently, 3,722 people went to the hospital’s emergency room last year and 154 of those were flown out for further treatment, Tracy said.
The majority of 2018 flights involved helicopters or 75 percent compared to 25 percent by fixed-wing aircraft, she said.
Richard Natelson, obstetrics and gynecology physician at Steele Memorial and chairman of the Lemhi County Airport board, said having a local base for medical evacuations is an asset for the community.
“The quicker we can get tertiary care (highly specialized medical treatment) to someone who needs it, the better the outcome is likely to be,” he said.
Hardy described the helicopter to be stationed in Salmon as a flying intensive care unit. Once the operation is up and running, flights could happen day as well as night, when night vision goggles will be utilized, he said.
Hardy said the benefit of the helicopter is that it has the capability of landing in varied terrain and directly fly to a healthcare facility, advantages in an area in which hunters, hikers and others can suffer injuries while in the backcountry. Although airplanes have an edge in adverse weather conditions, they require an airport and airport landing strip to operate where a helicopter does not.
In the event weather prevents the helicopter from flying, the local crew will go to Steele Memorial to prepare the patient for transport by fixed-wing in a procedure that will save time, he added.
“We want to be here in whatever capacity for those patients who need us,” said Hardy.
The company is in the process of arranging for on- and off-duty housing for clinicians and pilots, who can choose to reside in Salmon or to commute, he said.
The exact cost of such flights — by any company — was not immediately available. Local reports suggest medical evacuations from Salmon range in the tens of thousands of dollars. Hardy said Air Idaho Rescue is refining a patient advocacy program aimed at reducing expenses for patients and helping them navigate billing and other complicated paperwork processes.
Hardy will be available from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on April 26 at Steele Memorial Clinic to answer questions from community members.
A grand opening for the new base will take place in coming months, when the hanger will be opened to the public and crews will be on hand to meet residents.