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Helicopter TEAAM touches down on Island, offers new solution for remote rescue

With its goal of bringing advanced life support medical care to the most remote settings in the province, Squamish-based Technical Evacuation Advanced Aero Medical has expanded its services to Campbell River.

With its goal of bringing advanced life support medical care to the most remote settings in the province, Squamish-based Technical Evacuation Advanced Aero Medical has expanded its services to Campbell River.

The non-profit organization, which also has centres in Squamish, Prince George and Fort St. John, has set up shop on the North Island to provide helicopter-centred, pre-hospital care in remote sites where ambulances either can’t go or take too long to access.

“It was always part of our plan to go to Campbell River — it has a fairly significant need for the type of program that we provide,” said TEAAM founder and president Miles Randell.

Randell said the forest industry in particular needs this kind of service, which is able to reach into the most dense brush and access injured workers, start applying medical treatment and get them to advanced care centres in a fraction of the time other services can.

He cites an example, included in a 2017 report from the B.C. Forest Safety Ombudsman, of a forest worker who broke a leg in a remote part of Haida Gwaii in 2014.

It took 11 hours to get the worker, whose leg had been crushed by a fallen tree, to a hospital. The trip included two boat trips and a vehicle ride on an unserviced resource road. The worker’s leg was ultimately amputated below the knee.

Randell said a properly equipped helicopter could have made the trip in a tenth of the time.

There have been several cases of workers and residents in rural parts of the province having to wait unacceptable amounts of time to receive medical treatment, ombudsman Roger Harris said in his report.

“The findings of this report clearly indicate that there are serious gaps in the provision of emergency medical transportation services to people living and working in rural parts of the province,” Harris wrote at the time.

“This gap threatens the safety of forestry workers, as well as residents, who seemingly have little or no guarantee that they will have access to timely medical transportation in the event of an emergency.”

The report noted nearly 75 per cent of all people who die of trauma-related conditions in northern B.C. do so before they can be brought to a hospital.

It’s that gap that TEAAM aims to fill, Randell said. The organization got a huge boost when the ombudsman called for more use of aircraft hoisting to reduce the amount of time it takes to get patients from the bush to hospital.

TEAAM, which is made up of volunteer medical professionals who are paid only when they are called out on a mission, has allied itself with B.C.-based helicopter companies to reduce its overhead cost.

Randall said they call up one of the companies tell them what kind of aircraft they require and it will be made available within minutes.

“We’ve been able to have the right aircraft available with a pretty high degree of flexibility, as opposed to being locked down to only one specific aircraft,” he said, adding there’s the added bonus of not having to raise millions to buy one.

That means fundraising is reserved for staff training and equipment as well as the operational cost of running the aircraft for missions.

What sets the organization apart from other search-and-rescue groups is the fact they carry front-line medical professionals and are able to access injured people in the kind of terrain where aircraft ambulances and other vehicles cannot reach.

TEAAM uses both longline, which involves suspending someone on a cable outside of a helicopter in order to be moved to a site where they would then transported to hospital, and hoisting, which will see a person lifted from the accident site and transported inside the helicopter to hospital.

Longlining is most common. Hoisting, which is more expensive, is used by the Royal Canadian Air Force’s search-and-rescue crews out of Comox.

When it’s suggested helicopter rescue is not for the faint of heart, Randell said it is not as dramatic as some may think — and in areas with really thick brush it’s actually safer than carrying someone out on a stretcher.

The organization is supported by donations from industry — including Interfor and Western Forest Products — as well as charitable organizations like TB Vets.

Don Holmes, Western Forest Products’ vice-president for timberlands, said TEAAM is a major addition to safety on the Island.

“As a large employer of forestry workers on central and northern Vancouver Island with a continual focus on a strong safety culture, we value these essential additional emergency services and know the importance to our workers,” he said. “We have been subscribers of this service in other areas and are pleased to see it come to Campbell River.”

TEAAM is a membership-based service. Companies pay $100 per worker per year to have it available, plus $40 per person insurance to cover the cost of rescue.

The membership fee for recreational users of the outdoors is $50 per year, plus insurance, and households can join for $125 plus the added insurance.

“Effectively, it’s $140 a year for a worker or people that are in remote communities where there’s no ambulance service,” said Randell.

He said they will help anyone in need — even non-members — but it comes at a cost.

“The whole goal is to get to those patients that would otherwise suffer or die if there wasn’t a service like ours,” he said.

The price tag will depend on staff, aircraft time and the type of aircraft they use; a short flight and rescue that takes about an hour, for example, could run north of $4,500.

The demand has grown steadily for the service, and Randell said it actually saves the health care service millions.

In the first year, 2017, they flew one mission. It cost about $4,500 and meant that an injured worker was able to walk again instead of facing the likelihood of paralysis.

Randell said that likely saved the health care system and the taxpayer millions, once the initial treatment, rehabilitation, pharmaceuticals and other costs are factored in.

“When we do treat someone and transport them, the response to patient outcomes is dramatic and the reduced cost to the health care system and to Worksafe B.C. and others is equally dramatic,” he said.

“We call it medically directed rescue. And so being able to provide medicine on the scene makes a massive difference — being able to re-inflate a collapsed lung before we transport someone means a life saved,” he said, adding they can also make a huge difference in the recovery of stroke victims and those having heart attacks in a remote location by starting treatment immediately and then getting them to hospital within an hour or two.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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