October 27, 2018 1:06 pm

Peter Watts: It’s time to upgrade STARS

A STARS Air Ambulance on the scene of an emergency call involving a child in Priddis, Alta., on Thursday, April 26.

Okotoks Western Wheel / Brent Calver
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One of the most familiar sights in the sky is the STARS air ambulance. For more than 30 years, the service has been an important component of health care in Alberta, particularly for rural and remote parts of the province. In the last decade, the service has expanded from its Alberta origins to other parts of western Canada. In its lifetime, STARS has flown more than 40,000 missions.

Now, the time has come to upgrade the aging fleet of helicopters. There are eight of them currently in service, and there will be nine in total once the upgrade is complete.

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“We’ve spent two years considering our options on what type of aircraft will meet our needs,” STARS president and CEO Andrea Robertson told me.

“At the end of the day, we decided to stay with Airbus as our supplier. Airbus has provided us with great aircraft with the BK117 and with the EC 145, which we have used over the years. We believe this new aircraft, known as the H145, will be perfectly suited to STARS’ mission requirements.”

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The H145 will support STARS’ highly skilled professionals in providing a safe, rapid, highly specialized emergency medical transport for the critically ill and injured.

“One of the things that sold us on this aircraft is that it has more than 100,000 hours of use and is in service to police departments and to agencies that do the kind of work we do,” Robertson said.

“The new aircraft will be more effective in mountain operations during the summer months. It’s a twin engine aircraft, which is required by Transport Canada for the kind of work we do … And it will not require any further modifications to the landing pads of those hospitals we serve.”

Robertson says the first aircraft arrived in Fort Erie, Ont., this past week and will undergo several weeks of modifications, including the installation of necessary equipment required by medical teams. The first aircraft is slated for deployment out of Calgary in the first half of 2019.

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This re-tooling of the STARS fleet will not be cheap. Each helicopter comes at a cost of about $13 million.

“We’ll get some dollars back from the sale of our existing equipment,” Robertson told me. “We are talking to the provinces we serve to see if they will make a financial commitment and we’ll be launching a capital campaign shortly to see if we can raise more dollars.”

“The fleet will be replaced, one aircraft at a time, as we generate the funds to make that possible,” Robertson added. “We expect to have nine helicopters in the fleet when we are done. Hopefully, they’ll provide the kind of reliable, efficient and safe service we need for decades to come.”

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