February 3-6, 2009
The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a 4-day public hearing on the safety of helicopter emergency medical services (EMS) operations beginning on Tuesday, February 3, 2009, at 9:00 a.m. The hearing will be open to the public and will take place in the Board Room and Conference Center at 429 L'Enfant Plaza, S.W., Washington, D.C. This hearing will also be telecast on the Board's website (www.ntsb.gov). In addition, the Board is requesting submissions from the EMS community of materials related to aviation safety to be part of a public docket used in support of the hearing.
The goal of the upcoming hearing is for the Safety Board to learn more about helicopter EMS operations so that it can better evaluate the factors that lead to accidents. The Board will invite expert witnesses to provide sworn testimony. The majority of these witnesses will participate as part of small panels addressing particular safety issues. Additionally, several organizations will be granted "party status" to the hearing so that they may question the witnesses directly. The witnesses and parties will represent a range of EMS-related communities, including pilots, medical personnel, managers, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials who provide oversight.
Helicopter EMS operations provide an important service to the public by transporting seriously ill patients or donor organs to emergency care facilities. The pressure to conduct these operations safely and quickly in all conditions, including during inclement weather, at night, and on unfamiliar landing sites, has the potential to increase EMS operational risk compared to normal passenger-carrying aviation operations.
Helicopter EMS safety has been an ongoing concern of the Safety Board. In January 2006, the Board issued a special investigation report on EMS operations. Many of the 55 EMS-related aviation accidents (fatal and non-fatal) that occurred between January 2002 and January 2005 could have been prevented with simple corrective actions, including oversight, flight risk evaluations, improved dispatch procedures, and the incorporation of available technologies. As a result, the Board issued four safety recommendations to the FAA, which have not yet been fully implemented. The complete report and recommendations can be found online at http://www.ntsb.gov/doclib/safetystudies/SIR0601.pdf.
Over the past 12 months, the Safety Board has investigated an additional nine fatal EMS accidents, which killed 35 people. This drastic increase in fatalities prompted the Board to hold this public hearing. "We have seen an alarming rise in the numbers of EMS accidents, and the Safety Board believes some of these accidents could have been prevented if our recommendations had been implemented," said Member Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the hearing's Board of Inquiry. "This hearing will be extremely important because it can provide an opportunity to learn more about the industry so that possibly we can make further recommendations that can prevent these accidents and save lives."
The Safety Board has also added helicopter EMS safety to its Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements. A summary of the October 28, 2008, Board meeting regarding the Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements is online at www.ntsb.gov/recs/mostwanted/fedmwlpptwebfinal.pdf.
Preparations for this hearing are ongoing. The issues to be discussed include:
Operational structure and models;
Aircraft safety equipment;
Safety Board staff have already identified a full slate of subject matter experts to provide testimony in the specific issue areas and are now communicating with those potential witnesses.
Board hearings are not conducted in the in the style of "town hall meetings" or of Congressional hearings. Rather, they are an investigative activity designed to collect factual information that the Board will use to better understand transportation safety issues and, ultimately, to recommend safety improvements. The hearings are public in that they are open to public observation. They are not open to participation from the general public.
"However," said Member Sumwalt, "regardless of whether they will be designated as witnesses or parties, I encourage anyone involved in helicopter EMS operations to observe the proceedings at the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] Board Room, or by live webcast."
Additionally, as mentioned above, the Safety Board will be opening a public docket of materials in support of the hearing and invites members of the EMS community to make submissions related to the safety of the industry. Although these submissions might not be directly addressed as exhibits at the hearing, they will be made available to the public and may be considered in any future deliberations regarding safety improvements. Submissions received by January 13, 2009, will be considered by the Chairman of the Board of Inquiry to determine whether they will be used as hearing exhibits. Subsequent submissions will be accepted in the docket (without consideration for the hearing) until February 28, 2009. Materials should be submitted to NTSB, Ms. Lorenda Ward, Hearing Officer; 490 L'Enfant Plaza East, SW; Washington, DC 20594, or they may be submitted electronically to HEMS@ntsb.gov.