The security of the residents of the Yampa Valley was diminished, perhaps permanently, in September when Yampa Valley Medical Center officials announced the hospital would not re-establish a locally based air ambulance service. And that's why we find ourselves troubled by the initial reaction of Federal Aviation Administration officials to proposals meant to make air ambulance operations safer.
The hospital's decision not to continue a local air ambulance service came in the wake of the Jan. 11, 2005, crash of the twin-engine Yampa Valley Air Ambulance near Rawlins, Wyo., that claimed the lives of the pilot and two emergency medical crewmembers. A third crewmember survived.
However, the need for air ambulance flights in and out of the valley didn't end with the decision to abandon locally based flights. We were reminded of that last week when a Steamboat child was transferred to a Denver hospital after a skiing accident that caused significant head injuries.
The Yampa Valley Air Ambulance crash outside Rawlins (there was no patient on board) fit into a national trend that has seen 55 air ambulance crashes in a three-year period.
In response to that disturbing trend, the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates such accidents, came out with a set of recommendations last week meant to make air ambulance flights safer for everyone who boards the aircraft.
The NTSB concluded that nearly 30 of the 55 air ambulance mishaps could have been avoided.
"They are preventable, and they shouldn't be happening," the NTSB's chief of aviation said. His agency suggests requiring all air ambulances, including helicopters, to carry Terrain Awareness Systems that might have prevented 17 of the 55 accidents. The NTSB also wants better procedures for risk assessment and tighter rules governing flights operated in bad weather.
The FAA, which regulates the industry, took steps last year to make air ambulances safer. But NTSB investigators say those measurements are mostly guidelines and not firm regulations. Guidelines aren't sufficient, NTSB officials argue, and we agree.
After last week's release of the NTSB report, an FAA spokeswoman suggested that changes in air ambulance flight rules would come slowly, if at all.
We understand that air ambulance services, to be successful, must function as businesses as well as providers of mercy missions. And they must do so in a safe and responsible manner. Accordingly, we would hesitate to support regulations so onerous that they would completely discourage private sector air ambulance missions. But we were dismayed to learn that the majority of the 55 recent accidents took place when patients were not on board -- when FAA flight regulations are less restrictive from a safety standpoint.
The men and women who serve as the crews on board air ambulances are motivated by a deep sense of mission -- that of saving lives. We owe it to them to put in place flight guidelines that make it easier for them to decline an unsafe mission.
As 2006 unfolds in the Yampa Valley, air ambulances from other communities will continue to transfer our friends and family members to big-city hospitals where they can receive care not offered by our own medical facilities. But they will wait longer for those flights than they would have if YVMC had not felt compelled to somberly turn the page on a local air ambulance operation.
We urge members of Congress representing America's rural districts to contact the FAA directly and inform its leaders, in strong terms, that they want to see the NTSB's recommendations formalized sooner rather than later.
Their efforts will make us all more secure.