Legislation targets HEMS safety record

 - June 3, 2009, 7:41 AM

While the FAA develops new rules to improve the safety of helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS), the ranking Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) Committee and its aviation subcommittee called for congressional action.

“As we take up possible legislation, we must carefully consider congressional mandates for helicopter EMS equipment or operating standards,” said Rep. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.), the ranking Republican on the House aviation subcommittee. “It is important to thoroughly explore which technologies make the best sense to improve safety.”

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the ranking member of the full
T&I committee, noted there are “complicated challenges with multiple layers of jurisdiction and regulation” already in existence. “While we must be sure that the cure is not worse than the problem itself, we can and must improve helicopter medical flight safety.”

Two bills have already been introduced in the House of Representatives and there is companion legislation in the Senate.

H.R.1201, the “Air Medical Safety Act,” would require HEMS operators to conduct all operations under Part 135 regulations on all legs of a trip; and the FAA to develop consistent flight dispatch procedures, design a flight risk-evaluation program and mandate functional flight data recorders (FDR) and cockpit voice recorders (CVR) on board EMS helicopters.

H.R.978, the “Helicopter Medical Services Patient Safety, Protection and Coordination Act,” expands states’ authority to regulate HEMS operations, including medical training of aircraft medical personnel, medical equipment carried on the aircraft and the communication capabilities that connect the aircraft with EMS personnel and institutions receiving patients.

It also proposes to allow states to regulate service requirements with respect to geographic areas or during specified hours and days, and can require operators to comply with accreditation requirements. Proponents of the bill claim it clarifies state authority to regulate medical care provided in HEMS operations similar to how states regulate ground ambulances.

At a hearing earlier this spring, John Allen, director of the FAA’s Flight Standards Service, testified that the agency is working on notices of proposed rulemaking that would require helicopter terrain awareness warning systems; radar altimeters; training for recovery from inadvertent flight into IMC; and FDRs, CVRs and night-vision imaging systems.

But the length of the rulemaking process would delay adoption of a final rule until 2011. Helicopter Association International (HAI) president Matthew Zuccaro called the lag unacceptable. “Clearly, the FAA rulemaking process is not timely and needs to be revised,” he told lawmakers. “Accordingly, Congress should direct the FAA to review its current rulemaking procedures and revise same to expedite implementation of beneficial safety initiatives, when appropriate.”

Zuccaro testified that as a result of a recent collaborative industry/ FAA safety effort, the agency made revisions to Part 135 HEMS Operations Specifications setting forth detailed flight planning and increased weather minimum requirements
for EMS helicopter flights. Additionally, the FAA is evaluating the use of single-crew night-vision goggle operations to determine safety benefits.

The HAI president, who co-chairs the International Helicopter Safety Team, advocated federal money for on-site weather reporting such as AWOS and low-altitude IFR routes. He added that “80 to 85 percent of accidents are due to human factors.”

While the FAA, the NTSB and Congress are eying regulatory safety measures, a spokesman for the Air Medical Operators Association testified that members have taken safety measures beyond regulatory compliance in areas of training, terrain
and obstacle avoidance, oversight and safety systems.

“Air medical operators take great pride in their commitment to providing transportation as safely as possible,” said Craig Yale, v-p of corporate development for Air Methods. “While we cannot eliminate every risk, we can provide safe and effective air medical transport as requested and appropriately determined by trained and authorized medical personnel.”

In addition, Yale supported the intent of H.R.1201 while warning Congress that H.R.978 would both fail to enhance aviation safety and would undermine the existing authority exercised by the Transportation Department and the FAA to regulate all aviation aspects of air medical support.