For Betty Schaufele, seeing the HALO rescue helicopter sitting on the airport tarmac in Medicine Hat, Alta., brings a flood of emotions and tears to her eyes.
On July 23, 2018, she saw emergency vehicles whizzing by her house along a southern Alberta highway. She soon learned they were heading to the scene of a serious crash involving her husband, Paul Schaufele.
“My husband left to go to work driving his drilling rig — he drills water wells,” Betty recounted to Global News. “And he was driving south on the Nemisgam Road and the front tire on his truck blew and it pulled him into the ditch and he flipped.”
Paul was trapped beneath the truck, which was slowly crushing him. His injuries were serious and included 10 broken ribs, displaced ribs, a puncture in his lung and a tear in the inner lining of his aorta. Along with ground crews, a team with HALO Air Ambulance was also on the way.
“From the crash site to the hospital in Medicine Hat was 14 minutes with the helicopter,” Betty said.
“It took me and our friend who was driving me, it took us a half-hour to drive — 14 minutes as compared to half an hour, it makes a big difference.”
Looking out for everyone involved
While Betty was standing on the highway watching first responders work for hours to get her husband out of the truck and into the helicopter, there was someone at the scene looking out for her too — someone she hasn’t forgotten since.
“Steve, the pilot for HALO, had come and said to me that said Paul was in good hands,” Betty said.
That pilot was Steve Harmer, a veteran helicopter pilot who was involved with the original HALO concept in the 1990s when he was working for the British military in the area.
“We were doing a lot of rescues for the community as the British military, and we were worried, as the military, could we be held accountable if we’re rescuing a Canadian as British foreign power?” Harmer said, adding they soon found out they could continue under the Good Samaritan Act.
“I often joke with guys that I have the best Uber job in Canada,” Harmer said.
“I have the nicest Uber to drive there is and the guys in the back do all the real work — they’re the paramedics. They do sterling work.”
‘A gift to our community’
The helicopter is equipped just like an advanced life-support ground ambulance, meaning the life-saving work starts as soon as the patient and paramedics are loaded in.
In addition to the medivac services, HALO also facilitates search and rescue missions in southern Alberta, even training the volunteer techs on everything from holding a scene to jumping from the hovering chopper.
“From search and rescue side, we always keep the emergency link centre up to date, but that call usually comes through the RCMP or to a search manager, like myself, and then we contact HALO and ask, you know, ‘Can you help us with this or is this a good spot for you to help us?'” said Paul Carolan, who works and volunteers with HALO.
“We hope that every single search turns into a rescue, right, so then there may be a medical component. So it’s nice to have those advanced care paramedics with us. We usually take at least two SAR people with us as well.”
WATCH: HALO helicopters might be one of southern Alberta’s best kept secrets. Its crews race the clock, saving lives and searching for missing people. As Heide Pearson reports, the organization is filling a gap in emergency response.
HALO’s range is wide — the helicopter can cover all of southwestern Alberta, reaching as far as Waterton or Canmore and still making it to Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary on one tank of fuel.
“We have a big swath of land that we can cover very, very effectively,” Carolan said. “The helicopter moves pretty quickly and doesn’t have to do roads and intersections and just flies straight overhead, like a bird’s flight, and it just gets to where it needs to go very quickly.”
Paul Schaufele is on the mend now and recovering from his injuries. The HALO rescue team and paramedics who responded that day are always in their minds and hearts.
“Had HALO not been there, had he been taken by ground ambulance as was suggested by the people who received the emergency call, he wouldn’t have made it,” Betty said.
“This is an absolute blessing. It’s a gift, it’s a gift to our community. So I would encourage people, if you want something to put your dollar towards, put it towards HALO because we never know when we are going to need to use it.”
Room to grow
Since it started in 2007, HALO has grown significantly, most notably from a small Bell 206 rescue helicopter — which presented challenges for medivac missions — to the current main helicopter: a twin-engine BK 117, which is a true air ambulance.
With that change, the privately-funded organization’s operating costs jumped from $850,000 a year to $2.6 million annually.
The organization is currently fundraising to buy night vision goggles, which would allow crews to respond to disasters up to 14 hours a day, even in winter months when there is significantly less daylight.
“I did the first-ever night vision recovery of a Canadian citizen in Canada on night vision goggles way back in the ’90s so, you know, we have a fair amount of experience there, and that will give us an ability to cover our areas even better,” Harmer said.
WATCH: Wed, Feb 20: Video from the scene of a two-vehicle crash on Highway 36 in southern Alberta.
Carolan said considering that the provincial government and Alberta Health Services have identified the need to move people in emergency situations around such a large province quickly, he would like to see the HALO program funded 100 per cent.
“A helicopter fits a need that isn’t being met well everywhere in the province. So I think absolutely, that the government should be stepping up, making sure that these programs like this are able to stay alive.”
That’s a sentiment Harmer echoes.
In an emailed statement to Global News, Alberta Health Services (AHS) said it is committed to providing appropriate emergency care to the residents of southeastern Alberta, including ground and medivac services.
It went on to say HALO received a $1-million one-time grant in 2018. Before that, AHS said HALO would invoice the provincial health authority in a fee-for-service model after each flight.
AHS said HALO’s funding model will be part of a provincial helicopter review, but did not specify when that review will take place.