Alertness management coming soon for HEMS

 - December 29, 2009, 7:48 AM

At hearings last month members of the Senate Aviation Operations subcommittee pressured FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt to speed the agency’s rewrite of regulations addressing pilot fatigue. The proposed NPRM dealing with that rewrite was expected in September last year, but has now been pushed back to early this year. The NTSB has cited fatigue as a contributing factor in several recent helicopter EMS crashes, and fatigue reform is an old chestnut on the Board’s “most wanted” list of safety improvements.

The helicopter EMS industry has long been sensitive to the issue of pilot fatigue, mainly because most helo EMS pilots fly 12-hour shifts and alternate between day and night schedules. Eighteen months ago, the National EMS Pilots Association (Nemspa) began working with NTSB nominee Dr. Mark Rosekind, former director of NASA’s fatigue countermeasures program, on developing an alertness-management program geared to the helo EMS industry. That program could be rolled out as early as this year’s second quarter, according to Nemspa president Kent Johnson. Studies are currently under way at several helo EMS operators to measure the impact an alertness management program (AMP) has on enhancing overall pilot sleep quality and performance.

Game-changing Systems
Rosekind’s company, Alertness Solutions, developed the Z Coach Web-based AMP that has been used by organizations from JetBlue and trucking companies to the U.S. Olympic team.

The preliminary results of using an AMP such as Z Coach are encouraging, according to Nemspa’s Johnson. At JetBlue, alertness–measured both at the top of climb and before the top of descent–increased 30 to 40 percent. Performance was measured using NASA methodology. Participants were issued a PDA programmed for a 10-minute psychomotor vigilance task that was sensitive to even small amounts of sleep loss and measured mean reaction time, shifts in lapse duration, optimum response speed and frequency of lapses.

AMP participants also saw their primary sleep period increase by two hours; overall sleep within 24 hours also increased. “The bottom line is that pilots showed a significant increase in performance after going through an alertness management program,” Johnson said, adding that currently mandated crew alertness training for helo EMS operations is inadequate.

“Right now it can be covered in 20 minutes by someone who doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

Z Coach enrollees build a personal sleep profile that includes variables such as current sleep patterns, physical fitness and nutrition and uses that information to help users optimize their sleep benefits.

Johnson said that Nemspa’s alertness management system is likely to be based on Z Coach, with modules tailored to the helo EMS industry. “Right now there is a lot of studying going on, but we want to make sure there is a specific module in place before we push it hard,” he said.