Aero Med prepares for takeoff

Air rescue service plans to cease Big Rapids operations

OSCEOLA COUNTY — Air medical services once provided out of Big Rapids may no longer be as helpful to area residents once the helicopters are flying from Traverse City, according to Roben-Hood Airport Manager Mike Lafferty.

Following the establishment on July 8 of a joint venture called North Flight Aero Med between Spectrum Health’s Aero Med program and Munson Healthcare’s North Flight’s EMS Air Division, it was announced Aero Med will cease operating out of the airport in Big Rapids.

Spectrum Health signed a letter of intent last fall announcing its air medical support collaboration with Munson Healthcare. According to Lafferty, the switch could have serious consequences for area residents.

“The reality is their service is going to be degraded by 22 minutes,” Lafferty said. “If that’s not important to you, think about 22 minutes waiting when you’re bleeding to death or your heart’s not pumping. A lot of people have been saved by that.”

Lafferty urges officials and the public to get involved.

“We need to do something positive,” Lafferty said. “If we don’t stand up and yell, it’s already decided; they’re going to Traverse City.”

Big Rapids Mayor Mark Warba said the availability of air rescue service is important beyond the city or the county limits. Warba has appeared before the Mecosta County Commission as well as township board meetings to ask for support in encouraging Aero Med to continue operations in Big Rapids.

“It’s Big Rapids' community airport, but it provides regional service to people in Reed City, in Evart and small locations all around us,” Warba said. “It’s not just a city of Big Rapids concern; it’s a concern for anybody who wants prompt care.”

Aero Med doesn’t fly for broken bones. When they take off it's life or death, Lafferty said.

“Twenty-two minutes is a long time. To not have that is going to going to cost lives,” he said. “I have never talked to anybody who rode in an Aero Med helicopter, whose life was saved, complain about the noise, the cost or the time. It’s not something this community should take lightly. They are going away and you will no longer get the service you get now, period.”

Full-time Osceola County Emergency Medical Service personnel are trained with advanced lifesaving technology and ensure the highest quality of pre-hospital patient treatment, with or without air rescue assistance, said Jeremy Beebe, director of Osceola County EMS.

“Osceola County EMS is disappointed that Aero Med is considering removing a flight crew from the Big Rapids area,” he said. “Aero Med is a great resource for the community. However, Osceola County EMS and its staff is equipped and trained to transport critical patients between hospitals and from emergency scenes.”

Members of the Osceola County Board of Commissioners also approved a motion last month requesting Spectrum Health reconsider its move of AeroMed services from Big Rapids to Traverse City.

The future relationship between Spectrum’s Aero Med and Big Rapids was covered in a presentation made on Aug. 17 by Spectrum Health Big Rapids and Reed City Hospital President Mary Kay VanDriel to commissioners.

“There are two issues with Aero Med,” VanDriel said. “One is the business part of it, the leasing of space at the hangar … and the other is the healthcare component.”

Aero Med has not provided the city the 180-day notice required to prematurely end its 20-year contract leasing space at Roben-Hood Airport. When the joint venture between Aero Med and North Flight officially starts in January, the airport will be used for “training and strategic maneuvering,” according to VanDriel.

North Flight Aero Med will cease launching operations out of Big Rapids beginning Jan. 1. Spectrum will be analyzing data to ensure consistency in coverage, and may someday look to expand services in Big Rapids again, VanDriel said.

“That will all be part of the evaluation as we look to grow the business,” she said.

Addressing the issue of healthcare, VanDriel explained the logistics of an Aero Med transport call for a critical patient.

“At some point the physician makes a call that the patient really isn’t progressing and needs higher care,” she said. “So then you put in a call to see if Aero Med is available. Just because you put in a call to Aero Med doesn’t mean the patient magically gets better and is ready for transport — if that were the case, we would bottle that and send it all over the world.

“Often the case is Aero Med is standing there waiting because we don’t have the patient ready to go. You can’t just throw a patient into a helicopter with a nurse and send them down to Grand Rapids, because they will arrive with a dead patient and a nurse who will never take a flight again.”

Spectrum sees the change as an opportunity to increase its number of air rescue crews and provide more efficient and effective coverage, VanDriel said.

“We saw the merger between Traverse City and Aero Med as a good thing so that we would have more access to be able to transport patients,” she said. “When you think it through logistically, there were part-time hours here — this new venture will give us 24-hour coverage.”