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NTSB Still Seeks to Fix Medical Helicopter Safety

Oct 29, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
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It seems that this year was the deadliest year in emergency medical helicopter history and, now, federal accident investigators have just announced that the air-ambulance industry and its regulators moved too slowly to stop the onslaughts of medical helicopter accidents that involved nine  crashes and 35 deaths.  As a matter-of-fact, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) voted—for the first time ever—to put safety enhancements for air-ambulance flights on its annual "Most Wanted" list of suggested improvements.

Over two years ago, in January 2006, the NTSB urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make air-ambulance flights subject to more stringent operating rules, require companies to address possible risks before each flight, and install devices that warn pilots in danger of accidentally striking the ground or other obstructions.  While some progress has been made on some of these requests, none have been fully put in place, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, deputy director of the NTSB's aviation division.  "We need to put the foot down to the pedal.  People are dying," NTSB board member Debbie Hersman said.  "There needs to be a sense of urgency. The fatalities are going up and up," Hersman noted.

Many of the recent accidents follow those trends that investigators had spotted in their 2006 study of the industry's problems.  For instance, crashes tend to occur at night, in poor visibility, or in bad weather, Guzzetti said.  Worse, the NTSB's recommendations had the potential to cut over half of the 55 accidents studied in 2006.  Cutting those accidents in half would have clearly saved some lives.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the FAA does agree with the need for safety enhancements and said that the FAA has focused on encouraging voluntary action because it can be put in place quickly.  The agency is also "moving ahead with plans to require the NTSB recommendations in part or in whole," Dorr said.

The NTSB has also urged aviation regulators to write comprehensive rules requiring that pilots and controllers receive adequate rest prior to flying.  The NTSB also discussed the issue of cell phone use for the first time, urging federal highway regulators to prohibit bus drivers from using cell phones while driving.

Meanwhile, in July we reported that after the ninth medical helicopter collision and NTSB official was quoted as saying that such accidents were part of a “disturbing” national tendency.  Also at that time, FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette acknowledged that the agency was seeing an increase in fatalities.  The January 2006 NTSB report noted that emergency medical operations are unique in their inherent danger because of the high-pressure circumstances to which they respond, unfamiliar landing sites, and 24-hour emergencies, often in inclement weather.  The investigation also identified several safety issues:  Less stringent requirements for emergency medical operations conducted without patients on board; a lack of aviation flight risk-evaluation programs and of consistent, comprehensive flight dispatch procedures; and no requirements to use technologies—terrain awareness, warning systems—to enhance flight safety.

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