Yesterday, the NTSB released findings from an investigation of a medical flight that crashed in Mosby, Missouri in 2011. I’ve written about distracted driving before, but this is the worst example I’ve seen.
Apparently, the pilot was having a text conversation during the preflight check and missed the fact that the ship was low on fuel. Once enroute, he finally noticed the situation, but proceeded to pick up a patient for transport, planning on a refueling stop enroute to his destination.
But then he got involved in more texting, regarding his dinner plans for that evening. Think about it: texting while flying a helicopter means taking one hand off the collective control. He apparently believed that he did have enough fuel to get to his destination. Unfortunately, the ship, pilot, patient, and two medical personnel crashed a mile from their destination, within sight of the airport.
Teenagers know texting is wrong, but they believe that they know the way to do it safely. New information shows that adults are just as guilty as their children, but they do it anyway. Airline pilots got distracted working on their laptops in the cockpit, and overflew the Minneapolis airport by several hundred miles a few years ago. Everyone is doing it and they know it’s wrong!
Bottom line: There are no easy solutions, and laws are having only limited effect. For situations like this one, the easiest way to deal with it is to expand the team concept in the aircraft. The crew can’t be arbitrarily divided into medical and flight personnel (pilot) anymore. It seems that these days the nurse/medic/docs on board not only need to tend to their patient, but they need to look after the pilot as well. For everyone’s safety!
Reference: Numerous news items on April 9, 2013. See CNN content here.
Most trauma professionals are shift workers to one degree or another. It is well documented that sleep problems and fatigue can occur with this type of work, depending on the structure of the shift. A number of studies have been carried out in physicians and prehospital providers. But what about prehospital air crews?
Air medical providers are faced with two challenges: critically ill and injured patients and a challenging work environment. Typically, work consists of 12 or 24 hour shifts, and all of this is conducive to sleep problems and fatigue.
The University of Pittsburgh looked at this problem, performing a battery of questionnaires and cognitive tests in their air medical service before and after each shift. They studied 37 subjects, and found the following interesting tidbits:
- 95% of all crew members had poor baseline sleep quality
- Fatigue levels decreased over the shift (both 12 and 24 hr)!
- Crews were able to get some sleep while on duty (1 hour in a 12 hour shift, 7 hours in a 24 hour shift)
- There was a mild increase in cognitive test performance at the end of the shift, although it was not statistically significant
Bottom line: Don’t anyone try to generalize these results to all flight crews! This was a sample of a single flight service, and is not necessarily representative of others. Poor baseline sleep quality is likely due to the fact that many flight nurses and paramedics hold other jobs. In this particular case, the decreasing fatigue may simply be due to the fact that they are encouraged to get some rest while on duty and actually do it. Make sure that your agency has fatigue reducing and fatigue avoidance policies and procedures. It’s for your safety as well as your patient’s!
Reference: The effect of shift length on fatigue and cognitive performance in air medical providers. Prehosp Emerg Care (early online, 2013)
Military helicopter experience led to widespread adoption in the US for civilian trauma beginning in the 1970s. This has had the significant side effect of extending the reach of trauma centers to a significant percentage of the US population. But because of safety considerations and concerns about appropriate use, the overall benefit continues to be questioned.
Most existing studies have been small, single institution projects. Researchers at the University of Rochester designed a very large study using the National Trauma Databank. They identified over 250,000 patients transported from the injury scene, 16% of whom were transported by ‘copter, the remainder by ground.
Patients transported by air were more severely injured and were more likely to have a severe head injury or abnormal vital signs. They also had longer hospital and ICU stays, and were more likely to require a ventilator or emergency surgery.
Despite the fact that response and scene times were longer for helicopter transports, air transport was a predictor of survival when injury severity was taken into consideration. This type of study can’t tell why survival is better, but possibilities include distance traveled and a higher level of care provided by air EMS personnel. Aeromedical EMS personnel are more likely to trained to perform advanced techniques such as intubation, crich, and transfusion, and generally have more experience with trauma patients.
Use of this scarce resource for trauma patient transport remains expensive, and as recent accident statistics imply, somewhat dangerous. Trauma centers and systems need to develop evidence-based guidelines that use helicopters intelligently for benefit of the patient, not the aeromedical service owners.
Reference: Helicopters and the civilian trauma system: national utilization patterns demonstrate improved outcomes after trauma injury. J Trauma 69(5):1030-6, 2010.
There are about 840 EMS helicopters operating nationwide. The fatal accident rate has doubled from the mid-90’s to the growth spurt seen in the earlier part of this decade. Since late 2007, 57 crew members and patients have died in these helicopter crashes. According to the FAA, the most frequent causes of these crashes were controlled flight into terrain, inadvertent flight into instrument conditions, and disorientation during night flight.
The FAA is now proposing to change the rules and add extra equipment to these flights in an attempt to improve safety. These changes would include:
- Installing a ground proximity warning system
- Tightening the restrictions that limit proximity to bad weather. Currently, pilots must stay half a mile away from clouds during the daytime and one mile away at night.
- Boosting bad weather training requirements for pilots so they are better equipped to escape from bad weather
- Installing flight data recorders. New, lightweight models need to be developed for helicopters first, though.
It looks like this is a win-win proposition. Lawmakers, families of crash victims and the aeromedical industry appear to be on board with these changes. Once approved, they would go into effect next year. Unfortunately for the families of crew and patients killed in these crashes, the changes can’t come soon enough.