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Remarks to the Association of Air Medical Services Spring Conference, March 11, 2009, Washington, DC
Robert L. Sumwalt
Washington, DC

Remarks of the Honorable Robert L. Sumwalt, III
 Board Member
National Transportation Safety Board
Association of Air Medical Services
Spring Conference
March 11, 2009
Washington, DC

Good morning. Thank you for the invitation to be here today.

As I suspect everyone in this room is aware, last month the NTSB held a 4-day public hearing on Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) safety. I want to say it was an honor and a privilege to serve as chairman of the board of inquiry for the hearing, and I feel a great deal of valuable information was presented.

I thought that rather than my standing here, lecturing for an hour, it would be more meaningful to engage in a two-way interaction between you and our NTSB panel that we have assembled.

Joining me on the panel are two key people that helped coordinate and conduct the hearing. We have Dr. Bob Dodd, Chief of NTSB’s office of safety studies and statistics and Mr. Jeff Guzzetti, Deputy Director of Regional Operations for NTSB’s Office of Aviation Safety.   

Before beginning the panel discussion, let me briefly recap the hearing.

My personal objectives of the hearing were threefold:

  • Help the Safety Board gain a better understanding of the underlying issues confronting the HEMS industry and to better understand why accidents are continuing to happen. 
  • Put pressure to bear on the FAA to move forward with implementing previously issued Safety Board recommendations - recommendations that NTSB investigations indicate will prevent accidents.
  • Put pressure to bear on the industry to voluntarily implement increased safety measures, such as those recommended by NTSB. By that, I mean, how can the industry raise the safety bar without a regulatory mandate? 

By design, the hearing was comprehensive in nature.  It lasted 4 days—making it one of the longest NTSB public hearings on record. 

  • We looked at operational models, reimbursement, and competition.
  • We examined flight operations procedures including flight planning, weather minimums, and preflight risk assessment.
  • We discussed safety enhancing technology such as TAWS and Night Vision Imaging Systems (NVIS).
  • We looked at flight recorders and associated flight operations quality assurance programs.
  • Training, including use of flight simulators, was discussed. 
  • And, we looked at Safety Management Systems (SMS) and delved into corporate and government oversight.

We obtained the perspectives of nearly every facet of the HEMS industry, including large and small companies, VFR and IFR operations, hospital programs, and those that oversee them.

The hearing featured 41 witnesses, representing eight HEMS operators, 12 associations, six manufacturers, and four hospitals.  These witnesses and parties included 21 helicopter pilots, eight medical doctors, and a host of regulators, policy makers, first responders, flight dispatchers, flight nurses, flight paramedics, administrators, rule makers, and inspectors. We had seven parties to the hearing, including AAMS. 

Not only did we receive information from the participants of the hearing, we openly solicited the HEMS community to submit additional information that would be evaluated and possibly entered into the public docket. That solicitation yielded hundreds and hundreds of pages of documents.

I can’t emphasize how much the Safety Board appreciates the cooperation and preparation by the parties, witnesses and those in the HEMS industry. It was remarkable and as chairman of the board of inquiry, I personally appreciate their cooperation. They really made my job easy.

Archived video of the hearing is posted on the NTSB web site. It is downloadable, but it is only available for two more months.     

The submissions to the public docket closed on Monday, March 9th.

This afternoon the transcripts from the hearing will be posted on the NTSB web site, as well. 

We anticipate having the Executive Summary of the hearing posted on the web by March 31.

Now, for the real question: What does the NTSB plan to do now?

One thing that has already emerged from the hearing is that the Safety Board established a firm standard to classify an EMS accident in an attempt to harmonize its EMS accident census data with the air medical industry and the FAA.

Under these revised standards, the Safety Board now classifies an EMS accident as one in which the accident flight involved an aircraft dedicated to air medical operations, configured for such operations, and piloted by a dedicated EMS crew. As a result of this standard, the Safety Board’s EMS accident statistics have been revised accordingly.

Safety Board staff will continue poring over all of these sources of data – over 3000 pages in total – to look for innovative ways to improve safety. As you may know, the Safety Board does not have statutory authority to enact regulations or laws – our primary products for change are safety advocacy and safety recommendations.  

That said, staff is anticipating possible draft recommendations at least in the areas of oversight, equipment and training. Jeff and Bob tell me that their plans are to get an initial set of draft recommendations to the Board within the next 90 days.

There may be more than one set of recommendations.  The first set of recommendations could be those that are fairly intuitive and don’t require much additional study and research.  An additional set of recommendations could include those that would likely entail more extensive analysis and therefore, take longer to be generated.

Whatever we do, our motivation is simple – find innovative ways to improve HEMS safety.

And now, I would like to turn to the panel and questions from you in the audience.