POLITICS

Ornge failed to protect health and safety of pilots: federal investigators

11/19/2013 01:44 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
TORONTO - Ontario's governing Liberals are once again defending the province's troubled air ambulance service, insisting it's following federal orders to fix safety problems following a deadly helicopter crash in a remote northern area.

But critics say Ornge's new management team has failed to turn the scandal-plagued organization around after federal officials found it failed to protect the health and safety of its helicopter pilots.

It's the latest blow to Ornge, which also under a criminal probe for financial irregularities under its previous executive team.

Last May, two paramedics and two pilots died after their helicopter crashed at night shortly after takeoff near Moosonee. They were on their way to pick up a patient in the fly-in First Nations community of Attawapiskat.

Federal officials investigating the crash recently told Ornge that, among other problems, it failed to protect the health and safety of helicopter pilots when flying and when working together in the aircraft.

They said it also failed to adequately educate pilots on the health and safety hazards associated with northern operations, didn't consult on the development of health and safety policies and didn't ensure that all supervisors and managers responsible for pilots are adequately trained under the Canada Labour Code.

Ornge said it was also instructed to address its "failure to ensure the health and safety of pilots who operate by night visual flight rules are provided with a means to ensure visual reference is maintained throughout the flight."

Transport Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada have directed the organization to "take measures to correct the hazard or condition that constitutes the danger immediately."

Ornge said it will comply with the orders and is co-operating fully with the Transportation Safety Board investigation.

"Ornge is committed to taking all necessary steps to ensure the safety of our staff, both on the ground and in the air," CEO Andrew McCallum said Tuesday in a statement.

Progressive Conservative Frank Klees said it's clear Ornge's new masters are not qualified to manage an aviation service.

"A competent aviation system puts its training in place, has the appropriate processes in place, has the appropriate operations systems in place to prevent these issues," Klees added.

"When are we going to hear about the next tragedy and what is the minister going to say to the families of people who succumb in that tragedy?"

Health Minister Deb Matthews insists Ornge is improving under the current management team, despite the latest setback.

Their priority is the safety of their patients and their employees, and they're "turning that place around," she said. It's a much different organization now than it was under disgraced former CEO Chris Mazza, she added.

"They've actually completed several of those (federal) directions and they're committed to completing all of them," Matthews said.

"Safety — you're always trying to do better and you're always having to learn from a tragedy."

Two inspection reports by Transport Canada earlier this year found other problems, such as outdated manuals, gaps in training records, personnel who hadn't taken approved training courses and training pilots in a simulator of a different helicopter model than the one they're flying.

Seeing Ornge stumble yet again after vowing to improve is having a "devastating impact" on people's faith in the province's air ambulance service, said New Democrat health critic France Gelinas.

Her constituents in the northern riding of Nickel Belt — which include family members of the men who died — depend heavily on Ornge for emergency medical transportation in far-flung communities, she said. After the crash, their trust in Ornge plummeted.

"They have to rebuild Ornge before we can have trust in it," she said.

"They haven't gone far enough to be able to rebuild the trust. The trust stands at near zero right now."

The family of Chris Snowball, a 38-year-old paramedic who died in the crash, declined to comment on the findings.

Ornge has been under the microscope for nearly two years. The province's auditor general has questioned its business dealings and slammed the government for failing to oversee a publicly funded organization that received $730 million over five years and borrowed $300 million more.