Medical Helicopter Accidents Leads to Calls for New Safety Rules
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is recommending that the government enact stringent new measures to improve medical helicopter safety in the wake of a record year for emergency helicopter accidents.
The NTSB recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) include requiring the installation of autopilot, terrain awareness and night-vision systems, as well as increased safety training and annual flight activity reporting for pilots. The FAA is not bound to follow the NTSB recommendations. The NTSB will also ask the Department of Health and Human Services to make Medicare payments to emergency helicopter operators dependent upon passing safety audits.
The new recommendations came after 2008 saw a record number of fatalities from emergency medical helicopter accidents. The crashes killed 29 people last year, in what was the deadliest year on record for medical helicopters.
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Many of the helicopter crashes involved multiple deaths, and most occurred during the summer. Four people were killed in an accident in Huntsville, Texas in June 2008, three were killed in Burney, Indiana in August of that year, and four people were killed and one person critically injured in a medical helicopter accident in Prince George’s County, Maryland, less than a month later.
The increased number of accidents come during a boom in the number of emergency medical flight services, which some say is connected to Medicare rule changes in 2002 that made it easier to get reimbursed for medical rescue flights. Over the last decade the number of emergency medical flight operators has increased more than 80 percent.
The NTSB has long complained that medical helicopters operate without some of the most basic flight safety equipment, such as “black box” log recorders, collision-avoidance systems and radar altimeters. However, the helicopter industry has fought strict increased regulation in favor of voluntary compliance.
FAA officials indicate that they intend to propose new air ambulance rules early next year, and will take the NTSB recommendations into consideration when formulating the new rules.
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