THE BLOG

Turbulence in the Fort McMurray Skies

05/23/2014 03:27 EDT | Updated 07/23/2014 05:59 EDT
Michael Melford via Getty Images

It is the middle of the night, and you need help.

That's when these things always seem to happen, when they are least expected. And no one ever "expects" tragedy or trauma to strike, which I suppose is why we call them an emergency.

They happen everywhere, and they have happened in my own life with my parents as they aged, although in their case they lived in a large city with easy access to rapid medical care and transportation. But what happens when these emergencies happen in a remote region, like a highway far from major centres or an oilsands site far from medical expertise? Who do we rely on then to get us, our loved ones, our fellow community members or our employees to the medical care they desperately need?

Well, in Fort McMurray for over twenty years we have relied on Phoenix Heli-Flight, and in the last few months Phoenix improved their service by offering dedicated 24/7 Helicopter Emergency Medical Services. This was a service not previously available in the region and prior to this 24/7 service we found ourselves reliant on traditional emergency medical services that do not always work well in remote areas of the north. In order to operate these night flights Phoenix had to invest in specialized equipment, including a helicopter capable of performing during demanding situations and serving a large - and growing - region.

For the most part Phoenix has shouldered the financial burden of these night flights and 24/7 operations. While they have been paid by Alberta Health Services on a fee-per-service basis and while two industry partners have contributed, along with donations from individual community members, the funding that Phoenix initially anticipated to come from government and industry has not materialized, and as a result Phoenix will be forced to stop offering 24/7 emergency helicopter services at the end of this month as the financial burden has become too much for them to bear.

We live in a region that is home to an industry that operates 24/7. Added to the potential for industrial incidents requiring emergency medical intervention is the workforce that operates that industry, a predominantly male group with medical emergencies ranging from strokes to heart attacks. As a result of that 24/7 industry we also have a 24/7 community, with our highways buzzing with traffic and the potential for collisions during every time of day. The reality is that our region is unique in some ways, including a 24/7 industry and community that demands 24/7 services to support it - including emergency medical transportation that is available around the clock, seven days a week, with the equipment and professionals necessary to both do the job and do it well - and Phoenix Heli-Flight are the ones who have the equipment and professionals to do it.

The residents of this region and those who work in our industry and live in the camps provided by industry are reliant on these services - and in situations where minutes do matter and where lengthy transportation delays can result in poor medical outcomes, including death. We are a region of remote communities, work camps, isolated roads, industrial sites and thousands and thousands of people for whom these night flights can mean the difference between life and death. It's a pretty stark reality - and it is time for everyone to recognize it and come back to the table.

You see, Phoenix Heli-Flight has tried to secure funding from industry and the provincial government but it has turned into one of those situations where everyone acknowledges the necessity of the service but no one wants to shoulder the cost. It seems a stalemate has evolved, and the ones losing are the residents of this region, as well as all those who come to this region to work from all across Alberta and our country.

This issue impacts a far larger group than solely the citizens of this region. We have individuals working in this region who come from across Canada, and who are equally dependent on timely medical transportation in emergencies. This issue impacts those individuals and their families across the country, and so the ripple effect of the end of these services will spread far and wide.

Phoenix Heli-Flight has clearly shown their commitment to providing 24/7 emergency helicopter services, but they cannot continue to do so if it is not cost-effective and if they are shouldering the majority of the financial impact. It is time for the other stakeholders - the Government of Alberta and all industry representatives - to come back to the table to negotiate a resolution to this issue and find a way to continue funding a service that is, fundamentally, essential. The cost to provide the dedicated ‎service is $7,900 per day, with most of that going toward costs for 9 pilots, 2 mechanics, and administration. It also includes a hangar and office, and fuel infrastructure, insurance, training, night vision goggles, and a $6 million helicopter. This might seem like a large amount but if compared to what our region produces in economic benefit for the province and nation and in revenue generation for the industry it is quite clearly a drop in the bucket on the investment scale.

Perhaps you reside in the oilsands region and wish this service to continue. Perhaps you reside in another part of this province or country and work in this region. Perhaps you have family who live, work or play in this region. The reality is that if this region touches your life in any way then this issue has the potential to impact you as those emergencies, the ones that happen in the middle of the night, are never expected and we never expect them to touch our lives - and yet they do.

We need to advocate for our community and our workforce, and for Phoenix Heli-Flight as they have carried the burden of advocacy for long enough. We need to contact our government representatives, our unions, our employers and anyone and everyone that we believe will benefit from continued 24/7 emergency helicopter services. We need to ensure they understand that we believe this service must continue and that we believe the small financial investment it will require from industry and government is more than compensated for by the economic power and benefits generated by this region.

The reality is that we never know when one of those middle of the night emergencies may touch our life - and in this case we may lose the very service that could save our life. Let's make sure that doesn't happen.