||It has been suggested that Air medical services be merged into this article. (Discuss) Proposed since November 2011.|
|A Eurocopter EC 145 of Switzerland's Rega air rescue service|
An air ambulance is a specially outfitted aircraft that transports injured or sick people in a medical emergency or over distances or terrain impractical for a conventional ground ambulance. These and related operations are called aeromedical. In some circumstances, the same aircraft may be used to search for missing or wanted people.
Like ground ambulances, air ambulances are equipped with medical equipment vital to monitoring and treating injured or ill patients. Common equipment for air ambulances includes medications, ventilators, ECGs and monitoring units, CPR equipment, and stretchers. A medically staffed and equipped air ambulance provides medical care in flight—while a non-medically equipped and staffed aircraft simply transports patients without care in flight. Military organizations and NATO refer to the former as medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) and to the latter as casualty evacuation (CASEVAC).
As with many Emergency Medical Service (EMS) innovations, treating patients in flight originated in the military. The concept of using aircraft as ambulances is almost as old as powered flight itself. Although balloons were not used to evacuate wounded soldiers at the Siege of Paris in 1870, air evacuation was experimented with during the First World War. The first true Air Ambulance flight was made when a Serbian officer was flown from the battlefield to hospital by a plane of the French Air Service. French records at the time indicated that the mortality rate of the injured was reduced from 60% to just under 10% if they were evacuated by air.
The first recorded British ambulance flight took place in 1917 in Turkey when a soldier in the Camel Corps who had been shot in the ankle was flown to hospital in a de Havilland DH9 in 45 minutes. The same journey by land would have taken some 3 days to complete. In the 1920s several services, both official and unofficial, started up in various parts of the world. Aircraft were still primitive at the time, with limited capabilities, and the effort received mixed reviews.
Exploration of the idea continued, however, and France and the United Kingdom used fully organized air ambulance services during the African and Middle Eastern Colonial Wars of the 1920s. In 1920, the British, while suppressing the "Mad Mullah" in Somalialand, used an Airco DH.9A fitted out as an air ambulance. It carried a single stretcher under a fairing behind the pilot. The French evacuated over 7,000 casualties during that period. By 1936, an organized military air ambulance service evacuated wounded from the Spanish Civil War for medical treatment in Nazi Germany. The first use of medevac with helicopters was the evacuation of three British pilot combat casualties by a US Army Sikorsky in Burma during WW2, and the first dedicated use of helicopters by U.S. forces occurred during the Korean War, between 1950 and 1953. The French used light helicopters in the First Indochina War. While popularly depicted as simply removing casualties from the battlefield (which they did), helicopters in the Korean War also moved critical patients to hospital ships after initial emergency treatment in field hospitals.
Knowledge and expertise of use of air ambulances evolved parallel to the aircraft themselves. By 1969, in Vietnam, the use of specially trained medical corpsmen and helicopter air ambulances led U.S. researchers to determine that servicemen wounded in battle had better rates of survival than motorists injured on California freeways. This inspired the first experiments with the use of civilian paramedics in the world. The US military recently employed UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters to provide air ambulance service during the Iraq War to military personnel and civilians. The use of military aircraft as battlefield ambulances continues to grow and develop today in a variety of countries, as does the use of fixed-wing aircraft for long-distance travel, including repatriation of the wounded. Currently, a NATO working group is investigating unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs) for casualty evacuation.
Light helicopters like this Bell 47 Sioux removed the wounded from the battlefield (Korea)
The first civilian uses of aircraft as ambulances were probably incidental. In northern Canada, Australia, and in Scandinavian countries, remote, sparsely populated settlements are often inaccessible by road for months at a time, or even year round. In some places in Scandinavia, particularly in Norway, the primary means of transportation between communities is by boat. Early in aviation history, many of these communities began to rely on civilian "bush" pilots, who fly small aircraft and transport supplies, mail, and visiting doctors or nurses. Bush pilots probably performed the first civilian air ambulance trips, albeit on an ad hoc basis—but clearly, a need for these services existed. In the early 1920s, Sweden established a standing air ambulance system, as did Siam (Thailand). In 1928 the first formal, full-time air ambulance service was established in the Australian outback. This organization became the Royal Flying Doctor Service and still operates. In 1934, Marie Marvingt established the first civil air ambulance service in Africa, in Morocco. In 1936, air ambulance services were established as part of the Highlands and Islands Medical Service to serve more remote areas of Highland Scotland.
Air ambulances quickly established their usefulness in remote locations, but their role in developed areas developed more slowly. After World War II, the Saskatchewan government in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, established the first civilian air ambulance in North America. The Saskatchewan government had to consider remote communities and great distances in providing health care to its citizens. The Saskatchewan Air Ambulance service continues to be active as of 2011.
J. Walter Schaefer founded the first air ambulance service in the U.S, in 1947, in Los Angeles. The Schaefer Air Service, operated as part of Schaefer Ambulance Service. Schaefer Air Service was also the first FAA-certified air ambulance service in the United States. When the Saskatchewan and Schaefer services began, paramedicine was still decades away, and unless a physician or nurse accompanied the patient, air ambulances primarily provided medical transportation. A great deal of the early use of aircraft as ambulances in civilian life, particularly helicopters, involved the improvised use of aircraft that belonged to the military. Eventually, this became more organized. This occurred not only in the United States, but also in other countries, and persists today. Today in the U.S., helicopters and airplanes carry out approximately a half million transports per year.
Two research programs were implemented in the U.S. to assess the impact of medical helicopters on mortality and morbidity in the civilian arena. Project CARESOM was established in Mississippi in 1969. Three helicopters were purchased through a federal grant and located strategically in the north, central, and southern areas of the state. Upon termination of the grant, the program was considered a success and each of the three communities was given the opportunity to continue the helicopter operation. Only the one located in Hattiesburg, Mississippi did so, and it was therefore established as the first civilian air medical program in the United States. The second program, the Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic (MAST) system, was established in Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio in 1969. This was an experiment by the Department of Transportation to study the feasibility of using military helicopters to augment existing civilian emergency medical services. These programs were highly successful at establishing the need for such services. The remaining challenge was in how such services could be operated most cost-effectively. In many cases, as agencies, branches, and departments of the civilian governments began to operate aircraft for other purposes, these aircraft were frequently pressed into service to provide cost-effective air support to the evolving Emergency Medical Services.
German 'Christoph' Air Ambulance of the Federal Ministry of the Interior
Italian Dauphin used in mountain rescue missions
As the concept was proven, dedicated civilian air ambulances began to appear. On November 1, 1970, the first permanent civil air ambulance helicopter, Christoph 1, entered service at the Hospital of Harlaching, Munich, Germany. The apparent success of Christoph 1 led to a quick expansion of the concept across Germany, with Christoph 10 entering service in 1975, Christoph 20 in 1981, and Christoph 51 in 1989. As of 2007, there are about 80 helicopters named after Saint Christopher, like Christoph Europa 5 (also serving Denmark), Christoph Brandenburg or Christoph Murnau am Staffelsee. Austria adopted the German system in 1983 when Christophorus 1 entered service at Innsbruck.
The first civilian, hospital-based medical helicopter program in the United States began operation in 1972. Flight For Life Colorado began with a single Alouette III helicopter, based at St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver, Colorado. In Ontario, Canada, the air ambulance program began in 1977, and featured a paramedic-based system of care, with the presence of physicians or nurses being relatively unusual. The system, operated by the Ontario Ministry of Health, began with a single rotor-wing aircraft based in Toronto. An important difference in the Ontario program involved the emphasis of service. "On scene" calls were taken, although less commonly, and a great deal of the initial emphasis of the program was on the interfacility transfer of critical care patients. Operating today through a private contractor (ORNGE), the system operates 33 aircraft stationed at 26 bases across the province, performing both interfacility transfers and on-scene responses in support of ground-based EMS. Ornge operates the largest and most sophisticated program of aeromedical transport in North America. Over 17,000 admissions are dispatched annually, making Ornge North America's largest operator in the field of transport medicine. Today, across the world, the presence of civilian air ambulances has become commonplace, and is seen as a much-needed support for ground-based EMS systems.
London Air Ambulance - England
Air ambulance service, sometimes called Aeromedical Evacuation or simply Medevac, is provided by a variety of different sources in different places in the world. There are a number of reasonable methods of differentiating types of air ambulance services. These include military/civilian models and services that are government-funded, fee-for-service, donated by a business enterprise, or funded by public donations. It may also be reasonable to differentiate between dedicated aircraft and those with multiple purposes and roles. Finally, it is reasonable to differentiate by the type of aircraft used, including rotary-wing, fixed-wing, or very large aircraft. The military role in civilian air ambulance operations is described in the History section. Each of the remaining models is explored separately. It should also be noted that this information applies to air ambulance systems performing emergency service. In almost all jurisdictions, private aircraft charter companies provide non-emergency air ambulance service on a fee-for-service basis.
Government operated 
In some cases, governments provide air ambulance services, either directly or via a negotiated contract with a commercial service provider, such as an aircraft charter company. Such services may focus on critical care patient transport, support ground-based EMS on scenes, or may perform a combination of these roles. In almost all cases, the government provides guidelines to hospitals and EMS systems to control operating costs—and may specify operating procedures in some level of detail to limit potential liability. However, the government almost always takes a 'hands-off' approach to actual running of the system, relying instead on local managers with subject matter (physicians and aviation executives) expertise. Ontario's ORNGE program and the Polish Lotnicze Pogotowie Ratunkowe (LPR) are examples of this type of operating system. The Polish LPR is a national system covering the entire country and funded by the government through the Ministry of Health but run independently, there is no independent HEMS operator in Poland. In North East Ohio, including Cleveland, the Cuyahoga County-owned MetroHealth Medical Center uses its Metro Life Flight to transport patients to Metro's level I trauma and burn unit. There are 5 helicopters for North East Ohio and, in addition, Metro Life Flight has one fixed-wing aircraft.
In the United Kingdom, the Scottish Ambulance Service operates two helicopters and two fixed-wing aircraft twenty-four hours per day. These represent the UK's only government-funded air ambulance service.
Multiple purpose 
In some jurisdictions, cost is a major consideration, and the presence of dedicated air ambulances is simply not practical. In these cases, the aircraft may be operated by another government or quasi-government agency and made available to EMS for air ambulance service when required. In southern Queensland, Australia, the helicopter that responds as an air ambulance is actually operated by the local hydroelectric utility, with the Queensland Ambulance Service or New South Wales Ambulance Service providing paramedics, as required. In some cases, local EMS provides the flight paramedic to the aircraft operator as-needed.
In other cases, the paramedic staffs the aircraft full-time, but has a dual function. In the case of the Maryland State Police, for example, the flight paramedic is a serving State Trooper whose job is to act as the Observer Officer on a police helicopter when not required for medical emergencies.
In many cases, local jurisdictions do not charge for air ambulance service, particularly for emergency calls. However, the cost of providing air ambulance services is considerable and many, including government-run operations, charge for service. Organizations such as service aircraft charter companies, hospitals, and some private-for-profit EMS systems generally charge for service. Within the European Union, almost all air ambulance service is on a fee-for-service basis, except for systems that operate by private subscription. Many jurisdictions have a mix of operation types. Fee-for-service operators are generally responsible for their own organization, but may have to meet government licensing requirements. Rega of Switzerland is an example of such a service.
Donated by business 
In some cases, a local business or even a multi-national company may choose to fund local air ambulance service as a goodwill or public relations gesture. Examples of this are common in the European Union, where in London the Virgin Corporation funds the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service, and in Germany and the Netherlands a large number of the 'Christoph' air ambulance operations are actually funded by ADAC, Germany's largest automobile club. In Australia and New Zealand, many air ambulance helicopter operations are sponsored by the Westpac Bank. In these cases, the operation may vary, but is the result of a carefully negotiated agreement between government, EMS, hospitals, and the donor. In most cases, while the sponsor receives advertising exposure in exchange for funding, they take a 'hands off' approach to daily operations, relying instead on subject matter specialists.
Public donations 
In some cases, air ambulance services may be provided by means of voluntary charitable fundraising, as opposed to government funding, or they may receive limited government subsidy to supplement local donations. Some countries, such as the U.K., use a mix of such systems. In Scotland, the parliament has voted to fund air ambulance service directly, through the Scottish Ambulance Service In England and Wales, however, the service is funded on a charitable basis via a number of local charities for each region covered, although the service to London receives most of its funding through the National Health Service.
Great strides were made in the UK between 2005 and 2008, when independent charities formed the National Association of Air Ambulance Charities (AAAC). This organization is widely credited for having created the political climate that made the helicopter industry and National Health Service recognise the enormous contribution charities make to trauma care in the United Kingdom. In 2008, NHS partners joined the association, and it renamed itself the Association of Air Ambulances.
In recent years, the service has moved towards the physician-paramedic model of care. This has necessitated some charities buying expensive clinical governance services from independent "for profit" companies. The industry is currently divided over whether it is ethically acceptable that income derived through philanthropy and altruism should be spent on buying this essential governance from profit-driven entrepreneurs. They have commissioned research (March 2010) and expect that in future, clinical governance will be provided either free or on a not-for-profit basis.
A final area of distinction is the operation of large, generally fixed-wing air ambulances. In the past, the infrequency of civilian demand for such a service confined such operations to the military, which requires them to support overseas combat operations. Military organizations capable of this type of specialized operation include the United States Air Force, the German Luftwaffe, and the British Royal Air Force. The Swedish National Air Medevac - SNAM is an exception to the military only rule where the system is owned by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap and the Boeing 737 Next Generation#737-800 aircraft is provided under contract when so required by Scandinavian Airlines. Each operates aircraft staffed by physicians, nurses, and corpsmen/technicians, and each can providing long distance transport with full medical support to dozens of patients simultaneously.
However, in recent years, exceptions to the "military-only" rule have grown with the need to quickly transport patients to facilities that provide higher levels of care, or to repatriate individuals. ADAC, the German automobile club, and Mercy Jets, use both large and small fixed wing aircraft configured to provide levels of care that can be found in Trauma centers for individuals who subscribe to their own health insurance or affiliated travel insurance and protection plans.
Aircraft and flight crews 
In most jurisdictions, air ambulance pilots must have a great deal of experience in piloting their aircraft because the conditions of air ambulance flights are often more challenging than regular non-emergency flight services. After a spike in air ambulance crashes in the United States in the 1990s, the U.S. government and the Commission on Air Medical Transportation Systems (CAMTS) stepped up the accreditation and air ambulance flight requirements, ensuring that all pilots, personnel, and aircraft meet much higher standards than previously required. The resulting CAMTS accreditation, which applies only in the United States, includes the requirement for an air ambulance company to own and operate its own aircraft. Some air ambulance companies, realizing it is virtually impossible to have the correct medicalized aircraft for every mission, instead charter aircraft based on the mission-specific requirements.
While in principle CAMTS accreditation is voluntary, a number of government jurisdictions require companies providing medical transportation services to have CAMTS accreditation to be licensed to operate. This is an increasing trend as state health services agencies address the issues surrounding the safety of emergency medical services flights. Some examples are the states of Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, Utah, and Washington. According to the rationale used to justify the state of Washington's adoption of the accreditation requirements, requiring accreditation of air ambulance services provides assurance that the service meets national public safety standards. The accreditation is done by professionals who are qualified to determine air ambulance safety. In addition, compliance with accreditation standards is checked on a continual basis by the accrediting organization. Accreditation standards are periodically revised to reflect the dynamic, changing environment of medical transport, with considerable input from all disciplines of the medical profession.
Other U.S. states require either CAMTS accreditation or a demonstrated equivalent, such as Rhode Island, and Texas, which has adopted CAMTS' Accreditation Standards (Sixth Edition, October 2004) as its own. In Texas, an operator not wishing to become CAMTS accredited must submit to an equivalent survey by state auditors who are CAMTS-trained. Virginia and Oklahoma have also adopted CAMTS accreditation standards as their state licensing standards. While the original intent of CAMTS was to provide an American standard, air ambulance services in a number of other countries, including three in Canada and one in South Africa, have voluntarily submitted themselves to CAMTS accreditation.
Medical staffing 
The makeup of the medical crew staffing an air ambulance varies depending on country, area, service provider, and type of air ambulance. In services operating under the Anglo-American model of service delivery, the helicopter is most likely to be used to transport patients, and the crew may consist of Emergency Medical Technicians, Paramedics, flight nurses, a Respiratory Therapist, or in some cases, a physician. Services that focus primarily on critical care transport are more likely to be staffed by physicians and nurses. In the Franco-German model, the aircraft is much more likely to be used to deliver high level support to ground-based EMS. In these cases, the crew generally consists of a physician, often a surgeon, anesthetist, trauma specialist or similar specialty, accompanied by a specially trained advance care paramedic or nurse. In these cases, the object is the rapid delivery of definitive care, occasionally even performing emergency surgical procedures in the field, with the eventual transport of the patient being accomplished by ground ambulance, not the helicopter.
Medical control 
The nature of the air operation frequently determines the type of medical control required. In most cases, an air ambulance staffer is considerably more skilled than a typical paramedic, so medical control permits them to exercise more medical decision-making latitude . Assessment skills tend to be considerably higher, and, particularly on inter-facility transfers, permit inclusion of functions such as reading x-rays and interpretation of lab results. This allows for planning, consultation with supervising physicians, and issuing contingency orders in case they are required during flight. Some systems operate almost entirely off-line, using protocols for almost all procedures and only resorting to on-line medical control when protocols have been exhausted. Some air ambulance operations have full-time, on site medical directors with pertinent backgrounds (e.g., emergency medicine); others have medical directors who are only available by pager. For those systems operating on the Franco-German model, the physician is almost always physically present, and medical control is not an issue.
Equipment and interiors 
Most aircraft used as air ambulances, with the exception of charter aircraft and some military aircraft, are equipped for advanced life support and have interiors that reflect this. The challenges in most air ambulance operations, particularly those involving helicopters, are the high ambient noise levels and limited amounts of working space, both of which create significant issues for the provision of ongoing care. While equipment tends to be high-level and very conveniently grouped, it may not be possible perform some assessment procedures, such as chest auscultation, while in flight. In some types of aircraft, the aircraft's design means that the entire patient is not physically accessible in flight. Additional issues occur with respect to pressurization of the aircraft. Not all aircraft used as air ambulances in all jurisdictions have pressurized cabins, and those that do typically tend to be pressurized to only 10,000 feet above sea level. These pressure changes require advanced knowledge by flight staff with respect to the specifics of aviation medicine, including changes in physiology and the behaviour of gases.
There are a large variety of helicopter makes that are used for the civilian HEMS models. The commonly used types are the Bell 206, 407, and 429, Eurocopter AS350, BK117, EC130, EC135, EC145, and the Agusta Westland 109 & 149. Due to the configuration of the medical crew and patient compartments, these aircraft are normally configured to only transport one patient but some can be configured to transport two patients if so needed. Additionally, helicopters have stricter weather minimums that they can operate in and commonly do not fly at altitudes over 10,000 feet above sea level.
Beginning in the 1990s, the number of air ambulance crashes in the United States, mostly involving helicopters, began to climb. By 2005, this number had reached a record high. Crash rates from 2000–2005 more than doubled the previous five year's rates. To some extent, these numbers had been deemed acceptable, as it was understood that the very nature of air ambulance operations meant that, because a life was at stake, air ambulances would often operate on the very edge of their safety envelopes, going on missions in conditions where no other civilian pilot would fly. As a result, nearly fifty percent of all EMS personnel deaths in the United States occur in air ambulance crashes. In 2006, the United States National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that many air ambulances crashes were avoidable, eventually leading to the improvement of government standards and CAMTS accreditation.
Whilst some air ambulances do have effective methods of funding, in the UK, they remain almost entirely charity funded, as improved cost-benefit ratios are generally achieved with land based attendance and transfers. Health outcomes, for example from London's Helicopter Emergency Medical Service, remain largely the same for both air and ground based services.
See also 
- Medical escort
- Golden hour (medicine)
- Emergency medical service
- Emergency Medical Retrieval Service
- Air Ambulances in the United Kingdom
- Air Ambulances in the United States
- Air ambulance in Greece
- Norwegian Air Ambulance Foundation
- Safety of emergency medical services flights
- Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems
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- Association of Air Medical Services
- UK Air Ambulance Information & Operational Info + Gallery
- U.S. State Department information on U.S. based air ambulance and medevac companies
- "Lifeguard" flight tracker
- HEMS Pictures by State