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Funding problems threaten to ground night helicopter ambulance in oilsands area

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FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - A funding shortfall threatens to ground nighttime helicopter ambulance service in Alberta's bustling oilsands region.

Phoenix Heli-Flight said it plans to discontinue night flights out of Fort McMurray to remote accident sites at the end of the month.

"If there is no funding in place, the company can't afford to keep it," chief pilot Darrel Peters said Tuesday.

Peters said the company has a fee-for-service deal with Alberta Health Services when it responds to injury accidents, but needs money to cover the cost of maintenance and having a helicopter and pilots on standby.

The night service began last December.

Peters said some oilsands companies and individuals have committed to make donations, but not enough to make the night service viable in the area, which includes energy projects that operate 24 hours a day.

A public funding appeal has come up short.

"The dedicated helicopter program is in place, with a helicopter and crew standing by 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," reads the appeal posted on the company website.

"Now we need your support to keep the program alive. Help save lives in the region!"

Kerry Williamson, an Alberta Health Services spokesman, said there's been no notice from Phoenix Heli-Flight of any plans to limit operations.

Williamson said the government agency would be happy to discuss the company's concerns and will continue to use Phoenix Heli-Flight on a fee-for-service basis.

"This is an efficient and effective use of health-care dollars, and also ensures helicopter services are available when required," he wrote in an email.

"Since the new helicopter with night vision was purchased, AHS' contribution of the fee for the service has been approximately $800,000."

Williamson said regardless of Phoenix Heli-Flight's decision, people in the region will continue to have medevac services when they need them.

The government is working to develop a long-term air ambulance strategy for Alberta, he said, with a plan to improve access to charter helicopters for emergency response in remote areas such as the oilsands and along Highway 63 which services the region.

Peters said the funding crunch means the company won't be able to renew its lease of an EC135 emergency medical services helicopter equipped with night-vision gear.

The company will still provide daytime medevac services, Peters said, and will rely on its fleet of regular helicopters, which could be busy doing oilsands industry or other contract work.

Phoenix Heli-Flight has been providing services for more than 20 years with paramedics from the Fort McMurray Fire Department.

Staff are frustrated because losing the night service could mean accident victims may not get to hospital as quickly as they could, Peters said.

"If you are not into a higher level of care within that first hour of your accident then you are going to suffer."

The Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service Foundation (STARS) says it has helicopter ambulances that can reach south of Fort McMurray from Edmonton or Grande Prairie within about 90 minutes. Many oilsands projects are north of Fort McMurray.

STARS, a non-profit charity, says it gets 20 per cent of its funding from Alberta Health Services and 80 per cent from fundraising and community partnerships.

Peters said Phoenix Heli-Flights leased the EC135 last June, after lobbying for the service for years, without a firm funding commitment.

The company believed the energy industry, governments and the community would step up, he said.

"You know that "Field of Dreams" movie where 'if you build it they will come?' That is kind of the logic we used to acquire the helicopter and the crew.

"But the people have been very slow to come."

— By John Cotter in Edmonton

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