Pensacola-based Baptist LifeFlight

Eurocopter EC130s and EC135s serve Florida panhandle region HEMS and hospital missions.

By Brent Holman
ATP/CFII/Helo. Boeing 737, Airbus A320, Bell 206L

Baptist LifeFlight's newest Eurocopter EC135. LifeFlight has served the Gulf Coast since 1977.

It was the early evening of Jul 6, 2001. Eight-year old Jessie Arbogast was playing in the surf with other children when a bull shark clamped down on him, taking a large bite out his leg and severing his arm, nearly killing him in the process.

The boy's uncle and other beachgoers got his near-lifeless body back to shore and began to administer first aid, making a 911 call in the process.

As calmly as he could, Arbogast's uncle told the dispatcher, "We need a life helicopter out here." Within minutes, Baptist LifeFlight's helicopter lifted from its base at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola FL and made the short trip across the bay to Gulf Islands National Seashore, where young Arbogast lay near death.

Landing on the beach, LifeFlight medics, assisted by an ER physician who joined the sortie, went to work immediately to stabilize the young victim and transport him to Baptist's Level II trauma center.

On reaching the ER, physicians and medical staff worked through the night to resuscitate the child and reattach his severed limb. That day, LifeFlight made the difference between life and death for one young boy—ground transport from the beach, across bridges and traffic, to the hospital would have taken 35–40 min, versus only 3 min in the aircraft. As LifeFlight Program Director Kevin Stanhope puts it, "The geography would have cost him his life if the helicopter wasn't available."

HEMS in the Gulf Coast

"We are very proud of our 34-year heritage and service to the community," says Stanhope, who over­sees Baptist LifeFlight, the 3rd oldest hospital-based helicopter EMS program in the US, and the first HEMS operator in Florida.

Founded in 1977 by Baptist Healthcare to serve the needs of a widely dispersed and geographically challenging locale, Stanhope attributes the clear need for HEMS in Pensacola to the isolated areas, large bodies of water and bridges connecting barrier islands, urban business centers and suburban residential neighborhoods.

With 1 leased Sud-Aviation Alouette III, LifeFlight launched service to Pensacola and the Gulf Coast region. At the outset, Baptist Life­Flight was a single-pilot, single-helicopter operation, leasing the aircraft with pilot services included.

Since its inception, LifeFlight has owned the "system" but leased aircraft and contracted for pilot services. From the single Alouette, LifeFlight has now grown to 4 Eurocopter helicop­ters. Over the past 3 1/2 decades LifeFlight has flown various models of MBB BO105, AS355 Twin­Star and Bell 206L Long­Ranger—today the fleet consists of 2 EC135s and 2 EC130s. Previously, PHI and CJ Systems provided aircraft and flight personnel—currently that role is filled by Air Methods, the largest HEMS provider in the US.

LifeFlight today

Baptist LifeFlight crewmembers at AMTC 2010 in Fort Lauderdale FL with the newest addition to the fleet—a Eurocopter EC130. (L–R) Dir of Medical Trans­portation & LifeFlight Program Dir Kevin Stanhope, Flight Paramedic Rusty Shoultz, Base Mgr Norman Lacsamana, Flight Paramedics Andy Anderson and John Strickland, Flight Medic/Business Development Lee Rumbley, Flight Paramedic Kenneth Hanack, Base Mgrs Mike Wood and Jackie Evans, and Clinical Mgr Larry Hall.Baptist LifeFlight is based at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola FL, where a Eurocopter EC135 is stationed. In addition, LifeFlight operates HEMS bases at Mobile AL, Greenville AL and Hattiesburg MS. Stanhope says that LifeFlight has placed aircraft strategically to serve the community where no other provider offers HEMS. "We are the closest provider in the various bases we operate," he says. "There are no other commercial or government operators nearby—we are a community resource."

Although LifeFlight is a part of the Baptist Healthcare system, Stanhope notes that it is a separate business unit: "In Pensacola, for example, we fly to all 3 competing hospitals." The other LifeFlight bases transport most of their patients to hospitals other than Baptist.
Last year the LifeFlight system transported 2155 patients, flying approximately 200 hrs per month total among the 4 bases it operates.

Current staffing at the bases includes 5 medical directors, Stanhope as program director, 16 pilots, 48 medical crew (RN/paramedics), 10 dispatchers and 5 mechanics. Stanhope oversees an $11-million dollar budget that includes facilities, leased aircraft and staff payroll. LifeFlight bills for its services, with the majority covered by insurance, although Life­Flight does not "prescreen" for insurance coverage, service is provided to all in need and some flights are "written off" when the patient is underinsured or has no coverage.

LifeFlight's home base facility in Pensacola houses the systems communications center that provides 24/7 communication and tracking for aircraft and crews. Interestingly, all of LifeFlight's dispatchers are qualified EMTs who take calls from 911 centers and other hospitals for urgent patient transfer, collect information about the patients and identify the closest aircraft for response.

The communications center has satellite-tracking capability for all aircraft and maintains constant communication with the LifeFlight aircraft when responding to calls. This coverage is in addition to the dispatch and flight-following responsibility provided by Air Methods from its home base in Colorado.

About 60% of the flying that Life­Flight accomplishes is in response to calls or "scene work," with the remainder predominantly interhospital transfer. LifeFlight also provides some medical service to oil drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. With an aging crew population on the rigs, most calls are medical and not accident-related.

LifeFlight also played a critical role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when many of the region's bridges and roads were impassable. During the recovery Life­Flight transported patients from—and flew supplies into—Tulane Medical Center in New Orleans LA.
"We provide critical care and pre-hospital medicine in an aircraft equipped as well as any emergency room," says Stanhope, "and we do it safely, with no accidents or injuries in 34 years of operation."

Working at LifeFlight

While the pilots are technically employed by Air Methods and provided under contract to Baptist LifeFlight, many of the aircrew have been with the LifeFlight system for over 20 years, remaining with Baptist while transferring their employment from earlier contractors. Stanhope quips, "We have no problem recruiting pilots—Pensacola is very popular."

Bill Dvorak is the aviation site manager and lead pilot for the Pensacola base. His experience and training are typical of LifeFlight pilots—he served in Vietnam as a US Army pilot flying the Bell UH1 and AH1, later returning to the States and working as a military and civilian instructor.


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