Aaron Todd, CEO of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) provider Air Methods, spoke with Rotor & Wing Senior Editor Andrew Parker for a wide-ranging interview covering a number of topics, including the company’s recent acquisition of Omniflight Helicopters and the challenges facing the HEMS industry. Look for more from the interview in the October print edition of Rotor & Wing and the full version online.
Rotor & Wing: What are the biggest challenges facing the helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) industry?
Aaron Todd, Air Methods CEO: I think it’s going to be a continuation of some of the same challenges. The U.S. EMS rotary wing fleet has doubled in the last 10 years, and while that’s brought about greater access to these critical services, it’s also increased significantly the cost-per-patient transported because of the high fixed-cost nature of the business.
So how do you continue to maintain—have the investments in safety technologies and modernizing the fleet, and continue to pay competitive wages and benefits while trying to remain financially viable with fewer flights per base?
Rotor & Wing: What about in three to five years?
Todd: Among the challenges will be the impact of healthcare reform and whether of not the industry has been able to improve its safety record with some of its significant initiatives to increase the margin of safety. At that point in time, there needs to be a real track record of improvement, whereas now there hasn’t been enough time to really draw an ultimate conclusion.
Rotor & Wing: What more needs to be done to lower the accident rate in the HEMS industry?
Todd: There’s a lot being done presently, and like anything it takes time for the benefits to be fully understood. When you look at Air Methods and you look at the entire industry, the majority of major accidents are associated with controlled flight into terrain (CFIT). And so anything that would enhance the margin of safety at night, and in higher-risk weather conditions, is going to pay strong safety dividends. I’m not aware of any major operator now within HEMS that is not embracing night vision goggles (NVGs) as primary, basic minimum equipment.
H-TAWS is becoming very evolved and more affordable, and has been embraced as standard equipment on Air Methods’ fleet. The onboard satellite, weather tracking [technology] and operational control centers are combined with companies that are embracing the FAA’s voluntary SMS program—initiatives that are going to combine to improve the overall safety record, and I believe already have begun to do so. But no one would declare victory at this point.
ARCH-operated Eurocopter EC130B4. Photo courtesy Air Methods.
Rotor & Wing: HEMS appears to be at the forefront of new equipment and technology development. Do you find that’s the case?
Todd: I believe it is, and it has great applicability. Unlike offshore or tour operations that have minimal night flying activities, in HEMS, 40 percent of our transports are at night and we now have the tools to significantly enhance the margin of safety.
Rotor & Wing: How does Air Methods safety management system (SMS) program fit into the equation?
Todd: We were, if not the first then one of the first, rotary wing companies to embrace the FAA’s SMS program, exiting Level 2 last year, and would hope to exit Level 3 by early next year. As we understand it, we’re the only rotary wing company in the country that has exited Level 2, and one of only a few aviation operations inclusive of Part 121 carriers that have exited Level 2.
But that’s really not why we did it. We truly believe that a comprehensive safety management system that incorporates everything from ASAP and NSAP reporting to monthly safety newsletters to safety advisory councils—basically all of the tools that allow us to identify risk on a pro-active basis, and mitigate that risk before something happens in a protected environment so all feel free to communicate these concerns without fear of retribution is a very powerful mechanism for safety enhancement. Which is really at the heart of what SMS is about, it’s basically identifying risk, evaluating it and solving it, in an environment that has free flow of communication throughout the organization.
Rotor & Wing: What do you think about the NTSB’s recent spotlight on HEMS accidents?
Todd: It’s been there for several years now. At least we’ve been taken off the Most Wanted list earlier this year, and so the NTSB hopefully is recognizing the pro-active efforts of air medical operators to increase the margin of safety. We’re continuing to move forward with these enhanced systems and technologies, and we’re hoping that it’s going to be a real catalyst for long-term change.
(See more of the interview in the October issue of Rotor & Wing and the full version here.)