NTSB Proposes Changes For Air Ambulances

NTSB Proposes Changes For Air Ambulances

CREATED Sep 9, 2009

Just how safe are air ambulances? A federal panel has just released a highly-touted list of ways it says will make the skies safer for helicopters that carry people to the hospital.

Will the proposed changes really make a difference? They may. As consumer investigator Jennifer Kraus found, it will likely take a while.

When seconds count, a medical helicopter can be the quickest way to get to the hospital.

Last year was the deadliest year on record for medical helicopters - 29 people died in eight separate accidents across the country. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators studied what went wrong in these deadly crashes and came up with a list of safety recommendations.

The NTSB uses medical helicopter services to conduct more pilot training, institute safety management programs, use flight data recorders, night vision goggles and autopilot systems in their choppers.

Dr. John Morris heads up Vanderbilt's LifeFlight program which has not had a crash since it started 25 years ago.

"The question is, 'How can we save more lives?'" said Morris. "Clearly it gets the entire industry focused on what can we do better and how can we make our industry safer."

His concern though is that the NTSB's recommendations are simply recommendations. To make them requirements for all air ambulances, they have to be adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA which oversees all things relating to aviation is notoriously slow. In fact, industry insiders said it will likely be at least another year before the FAA takes action.

There are no guarantees the FAA will even do anything with the recommendations. Three years ago, the NTSB came up with its first set of recommendations and the FAA still has not adopted them.

Air Evac is another air ambulance service that operates in Middle Tennessee.

The NTSB's latest recommendations came almost one year to the day after an Air Evac chopper crashed in Indiana, killing all three crew members.

Air Evac's president, Seth Myers, said in the last year, his company has taken steps on its own to make its operation safer, and that it's already taking steps to implement some of the NTSB's ideas.

"The NTSB is there to create awareness and, I believe, they've done that. That is their charge, is to make both Congress and the industry and the FAA aware. I believe they've done their part in doing that," said Myers.

Others said while awareness is good, action is better and requiring everyone to follow the same rules will help save more lives.

"I think these recommendations are a great first step. If we could get these recommendations into rule, we would have a much safer transportation environment nationwide," said Morris.

The NTSB also recommended that Medicare only pay for flights run by air ambulance programs that meet certain safety standards established by Medicare.

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