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Former Medstar pilot speaks out on why helicopter ...
Former Medstar pilot speaks out on why helicopter ...: Former Medstar pilot Arnold Mcallister says two men hurt in a car crash Friday morning were not airlifted, because a helicopter was not available. Video by Dennis Culver.

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A man with life-threatening injuries went without a medical flight Tuesday, as Lee County called up a helicopter from Sarasota to fill the void left in the absence of Medstar.

Acting under new orders, Lee County dispatchers dialed up a privately owned helicopter that was roughly 80 miles away — about four times farther than Collier County’s helicopter.

“With Lee County being gone, it should have just defaulted to Collier,” Estero Fire Rescue Assistant Chief Mark Wahlig said. “I don’t ever recall using Bayflite out of Sarasota County.”

A private company called into to cover for Medstar at Page Field, failed to get off the ground, according to a county statement.

When that happened, Wahlig said, Collier County should have been dispatched to carry the critically injured 19-year-old who was trapped in the passenger seat of a truck at Corkscrew Road and U.S. 41.

Lee County EMS Chief Kim Dickerson did not return calls for comment. Assistant County Manger Holly Schwartz referred questions to Dickerson.

First responders didn’t learn about Lee County’s new helicopter priorities until they were fighting to free the teen from the wreckage, Wahlig said

When they did, the incident commander immediately asked dispatchers to cancel the Sarasota helicopter and call the closest option, Collier County, Wahlig said.

Collier County could have responded, but 35 minutes passed before they received that first call from Lee County Dispatch, Collier County chief Walter Kopka said.

“We were ready to go,” Kopka said. “We didn’t have any calls prior to that.”

Shortly after that first call to Collier County, first responders freed the 19-year-old. But by that point, they weren’t about to stick around for the helicopter to show up, Wahlig said.

“It made really good sense to have the helicopter dispatched and have them sitting there and waiting so they could go right to the trauma center,” Wahlig said. “We’re not going to wait any longer for a helicopter, we load up and we go.”

The 19-year-old arrived at the emergency room 53 minutes after the first ambulance was dispatched, according to records.

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In a press release, Dickerson states: “This incident did not meet the Lee County Common Treatment Guidelines for Air Transport.”

According to those guidelines, only patients with a ride of more than 30 minutes should be taken by helicopter. It took an ambulance 16 minutes to bring the passenger to the hospital. The driver’s ambulance ride lasted 22 minutes, according to the statement.

The policy, Wahlig said, didn’t apply.

It’s standard practice to call in a helicopter when it will take a long time to free a seriously injured person from a vehicle, he said.

“The difference in this call is that it took time to send them,” Wahlig said. “We had 20 to 25 minutes of dead time to cut them out of the car.”

Dickerson did not state why the single helicopter that Aeromed has stationed at Page Field failed to start.

Aeromed Program Director John Scott did not return calls for comment.

The county brought in the company after officials suspended Medstar, terminating three pilots and program director last month.

Later, county officials reluctantly admitted they had failed to meet federal safety requirements.

In spite of that failure, county officials sent out about $3 million in bills — an action that violated federal rules and spurred an on-going investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Lee County owns two medical helicopters — both of which have been relegated to an aircraft hanger, because the county terminated the pilots who flew them.

Before he was let go, former pilot Arnold McAllister said the county’s primary helicopter would occasionally have starting problems.

When that happened, he said, the flight crew would just hop in the backup.

“We would simply get the other helicopter, push it out, start it up and fly the mission,” McAllister said.

The lapse isn’t a good sign, as snowbirds prepare to migrate to Lee County, snarling traffic and increasing commute times for ambulance, Estero Fire Rescue Commissioner Dick Schweers said.

“I’m concerned period,” Schweers said. “The reason for the helicopters is that you have someone who needs emergency care and fast. This is not a good situation.”

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