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Safety Alert: Medical Helicopter Crashes on the Rise

A recent article in the New York Times reports that medical helicopter crashes have risen over the past year. In the past eleven months, nine fatal accidents have occurred across the country, causing 35 deaths. The National Transportation Safety Board will, today, begin four days of hearings in Washington and safety advocates are expected to demand a crackdown on the medical helicopter industry, which, they say, is loosely regulated and highly (in the billions of dollars) profitable. The industry has doubled its size over the past ten years.

“I think you have a moral obligation and a legal obligation to operate at the highest standard of care”, says Robert Sumwalt, safety board member and chairman of this week’s hearings. Hospitals used to operate these flights themselves; today, according to the article, they outsource most of the flights to commercial operators and the article speculates that competition for these contracts has added additional elements of risk.

Safety advocates are calling for greater and tighter state and federal regulation. I agree with Mr. Sumwalt and with the call for increased regulation. The industry needs more oversight and more consistent safety standards, equipment, and training. While accidents do happen and some are not preventable, it is clear that specific guidelines need to be implemented to reduce the number of crashes. The Times article indicates that in 2004, after 18 people were killed in six crashes, the safety board (which cannot issue orders, only recommendations) urged the FAA to take four safety steps, only one of which has been implemented.

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