Easily the most visible and recognizable of our vehicles, our four distinctively painted orange Eurocopter AS 350 "AStar" B3 helicopters are literally flying critical care units. Chosen for its high altitude capability and economy of operation, the AStar is a perfect fit for medical air transport in Colorado's mountain communities and terrain.
The helicopters are based at:
- St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood - Lifeguard One
- St. Anthony Summit Medical Center in Frisco - Lifeguard Two
- Penrose-St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs - Lifeguard Three
- St. Mary- Corwin Medical Center in Pueblo - Lifeguard Four
- Mercy Medical Center in Durango - Lifeguard Five
Lifeguard One, Two, Three, Four, and Five are in service twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They have a service radius of approximately one hundred twenty miles from their bases.
All helicopters are leased from Air Methods Corporation in Englewood, Colorado. Pilots and mechanics are employees of Air Methods Corp.
Virtually all the pilots all have military experience, many having seen combat in Viet Nam and Desert Storm. All have several thousand hours experience as pilot-in-command and have undergone extensive training to enable them to fly in the unique environment of the Rocky Mountains.
The pilot's chief responsibility is the safe operation of the aircraft. All decisions regarding "go or no go" are strictly his. All helicopter operations are under "visual flight rules" (VFR), so weather factors will significantly affect a pilot's decision.
Each helicopter is capable of carrying one adult patient and two care providers, in addition to the pilot. An isolette can be carried instead of the adult stretcher. In rare situations, two adult patients may be carried, but this is dependent on many factors, e.g., altitude, air temperature, and total weight. It is our policy to not carry family members aboard the helicopters.
The helicopters are used in two primary roles, scene response and interfacility transport. Scene response can be to an urban traffic collision or mountain rescue. Each scene is evaluated for its level of risk and a flight may be aborted by any crewmember if they feel uneasy. Loading and unloading must be accomplished with both skids solidly on the ground. Interfacility transports are performed in order to move a patient either to a higher level of care or for the sake of immediate intervention.
Airplanes - Fixed-Wing
When the transport is beyond the range of the helicopter, or when weather precludes flight to a location, our fixed-wing aircraft are called into service. Flight For Life® Colorado contracts with Mayo Aviation at Centennial Airport in Englewood and La Plata County Airport in Durango for two dedicated Beechcraft KingAir 200's. This pressurized, twin turboprop aircraft is capable of instrument flight (IFR) at a speed of 265 nautical miles per hour (knots), and is used for flights of up to approximately 800 miles round trip distance. The pilots are all proficient in multi-engine and instrument flight.
Outfitted in a dedicated air medical configuration, the KingAir is capable of transporting any combination of two adult patients, one adult and an isolette, or two isolettes. On most flights, at least one family member is also able to fly along.
The fixed wing aircraft routinely transports patients to destinations in:
- New Mexico.
For trips beyond the KingAir's range, Flight For Life® Colorado uses a Learjet 35. This aircraft is capable of speeds of 440 knots.
Critical Care Ground Transport
In some cases, patients may need transport from one ICU to another, for specialized care. Flight For Life® Colorado's Critical Care Transport (CCT), known as "Terra One", is a specially outfitted ambulance, staffed by one of the adult team flight nurses and an R.T. or Flight Paramedic. Ground transport is performed roughly within a two hour drive radius of Denver; Cheyenne to the north, Limon to the east, Pueblo to the south, and Vail to the west.
Based at St. Anthony Hospital, Terra One is capable of moving patients while maintaining the highest levels of care. Some examples of patients that are transported include cardiac patients receiving vasoactive, anticoagulant, or fibrinolytic infusions, mechanically ventilated patients, patients undergoing IABP therapy, or for any patient that needs continuous ICU level care en route.
Terra Two, is our CCT ambulance based at Summit Medical Center in Frisco, and is in service when Lifeguard Two is grounded by weather, and at night. This provides the mountain communities with round the clock access to critical care transport, regardless of weather conditions. Terra Two is operated in partnership with Summit County Ambulance, which provides the EMT and a paramedic to assist with patient care.
In certain circumstances, several transport resources may be needed to to transport a patient to an appropriate destination. Weather conditions may prevent a helicopter from reaching the scene or referring facility, or a mass casualty incident may tax all other resources. In these situations, the flight crews will do whatever is appropriate to safely accomplish the transport.
The Flight For Life Colorado Communication Center handles the dispatching and communications needs for all of the programs services. Located at St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood, the center is a full time dispatching, flight following, and coordination center.
When a request for transport is received, the communications specialist determines which of Flight For Life Colorado's vehicles is appropriate for the transport and activates the crew. For a scene flight, the specialist takes as much information as possible regarding the nature of the call, the location, local weather, and any details on patient condition. All of this is passed along to the crew. The crews may elect to alter the plan, choosing another vehicle if needed, for the sake of the transport. Using all the information gathered, Communication Specialists can determine GPS coordinates of the incident location.
While in flight, the location and progress of the aircraft are tracked via radio communications. Whenever the aircraft is outside of radio range, messages are relayed via county sheriff's dispatchers. Some kind of contact must be made with the aircraft every ten minutes. No contact for thirty minutes results in an "aircraft overdue" response, triggering a formal process to locate the aircraft and determine if help is needed.
The center handles the coordination of other services that may be required on the scene. For example, on some interfacility flights, the aircraft may have to land at the local airport, necessitating ground ambulance transport to and from the hospital.
On the flight back to a receiving facility, the center facilitates the exchange of information between the flight crew and the hospital. This may be via direct radio/telephone link to an emergency department, or by relaying messages to the receiving unit by telephone.
For fixed-wing flights, the center will take the initial request and notify the flight crews, as well as Mayo Aviation, Flight For Life Colorado's fixed-wing operator. Mayo is responsible for contacting its own pilots and filing of flight plans. However, the center still coordinates all transport of the crew to and from the airports.
Once airborne, the fixed-wing pilot will coordinate with the center regarding ETA's and relaying any needs of the medical crew. The center will keep the referring facility apprised on the progress of the flight, updating the ETA as needed.
For critical care ground (CCT) transports, The center will take the request from the referring facility and notify the CCT crew. For simultaneous requests, Communication Specialist will consult with the CCT crew to determine proper order of transports, or for the need to refer the request to another service.
Periodically, area facilities will experience surges in certain patient populations, taxing their abilities to take any more patients. When this occurs, a facility will announce a "divert" for that patient area, e.g., ER divert, or ICU divert. The center will track and relay divert status so that patients will not be transported to facilities unable to accept them.