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STARS thriving on donated dollars
January 28th, 2012
Ted CLARKE, Prince George Citizen

How much do Albertans love their STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society) helicopter air ambulance service?

Last year they gave nearly $19 million to keep it flying rescue missions with its five-chopper fleet, and have handed over more than $250 million to the society since it began in 1985.

Picture of a helicopter at the scene of an accident
A STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society) helicopter and paramedic team arrives at the scene of a highway accident in Alberta. Since the non-profit STARS service began in 1985, the society has raised more than $250 million.

It's an easy sell considering over those 26 years STARS crews have saved hundreds of lives and delivered thousands more to medical help to treat their critical conditions. An estimated one in 10 Alberta residents knows somebody who was transported by STARS or were patients themselves who took advantage of the province's helicopter air rescue service.

"It's quite a high number of people who have been touched by our program," said STARS spokesman Mike Haska. "It's tough to know what our role was in some cases but every time we fly out it's a medical need for a critically ill patient."

Since it began with one helicopter, based in Calgary, STARS had flown more than 21,000 missions. In 2010 alone, STARS provided medivac service to 1,453 patients -- 654 from the base in Edmonton, 537 from Calgary, and 262 from Grande Prairie.

Each STARS flight has two pilots and a medical crew made up of a paramedic and a nurse, each with critical care skills with backgrounds in intensive care or emergency medicine. Referral emergency physicians who have specialized training in pre-hospital care of severely injured patients are based in hospitals and are on call as needed. Doctors fly on about 20 per cent of STARS missions.

When needed, STARS will also fly medical specialists from major trauma centres to patients. The life of an Alberta boy who sustained a head injury was saved when STARS rushed a Calgary surgeon to Red Deer hospital and the doctor drilled into the skull of the boy to relieve the pressure.

STARS helicopters also connect patients with fixed wing aircraft and ground ambulance vehicles. The helicopter fleet consists of five Eurocopter BK117s, one at each base in Calgary, Edmonton and Grande Prairie. Every BK117 is designed to carry one stretcher but can be adapted to fit a second stretcher if needed.

Two new AW139 Augusta Westlund choppers with dual-stretcher capacity are on order, one to be based out of Edmonton starting this spring, and the other in Calgary, beginning in 2013.

Flying in mountainous areas in western Alberta often brings about rapidly-changing weather conditions and STARS flight crews won't accept a mission if conditions are unsafe. Haska said that happens only rarely, on days with high winds or when freezing conditions would cause ice to accumulate on the helicopter rotors.

For night flights, pilots use instrument flight rules (IFR) equipment, except in mountainous areas, where it is not allowed. In 2003 STARS became the first civilian air carrier in Canada to equip its pilots with night-vision goggles. Following preprogrammed routes, they fly at lower attitudes where their night vision allows them to see the ground. They can readily see obstacles like trees and that greatly increases the safety aspect of landing at night in all areas. All bases have access to the equipment but each pilot requires specialized training to fly at night.

STARS has its own mechanics and engineers at each base, who provide all the maintenance work needed. STARS attracts a large base of volunteers to help run the organization. People contribute their time to fundraising, promoting rural air ambulance awareness and help to build and maintain helipads. Sales of calendars and donations from community service groups that want better air rescue service also pump money into the STARS budget. Since 1985, more than $250 million has been raised.



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