Following a deadly weekend helicopter crash, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that an increase in medical flight accidents is a "serious issue" that the safety agency is very concerned about.
At a Monday press conference in Arizona, NTSB chairman Mark Rosenker said those accidents have reached a "disturbing level" following a small reduction in accidents after the NTSB's 2006 report on EMS aircraft.
Two emergency medical helicopters collided Sunday afternoon in Arizona as they were each rushing a patient to a Flagstaff, Arizona hospital. The crash, which is the fourth involving one or more medical evacuation helicopters in less than two months, left six people dead. A nurse, the sole survivor, is hospitalized in critical condition.
According to the NTSB, this weekend's crash was the ninth accident involving EMS aircraft this year and the first to involve two aircraft that were both operating as air medical flights.
"It's extremely unusual," said ABC News aviation consultant John Nance. "First, because there's not that many of them and second, because they're usually very much aware of each other's operations."
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The falling debris from the accident missed a nearby neighborhood by a few hundred yards. Two emergency workers sustained minor burns in the aftermath of the crash when one of the aircraft exploded on the ground. The crash also ignited a 10-acre brush fire that firefighters soon contained.
The crash may be the latest warning signal to insiders in aviation safety that more measures are needed to ensure the safety of the emergency medical workers and patients onboard the life-saving aircraft. Prior to this tragedy, the June 8 crash of a medical helicopter near Huntsville, Texas, killed four — the patient, the pilot, a nurse and a paramedic.
Though several crashes in a period of a couple of months may be seen by some as just a terrible coincidence, government officials have noticed a very real upward trend in the past 15 years, prompting the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board to investigate.
Many details of Sunday's accident remain sketchy. The names of the dead, as well as the identity of the critically injured nurse, have not yet been released. And the exact cause of the accident remains a mystery for now.
"There is no one, single magic bullet cause" for a medical helicopter crash, says Jeff Guzzetti, deputy director for regional operations at the NTSB Office of Aviation Safety in Washington, D.C.
However, experts say a major contributor to the surge in helicopter accidents in general is the massive increase in the number of medical helicopter flights. A growing number of Americans over the age of 60 are in need of medical care; emergency rooms, hospitals and ambulance services around the country have closed; and changes the way health care is delivered to rural areas mean there are far more EMS helicopter flights now than just a few years ago, according to the Association of Air Medical Services.
In 2002, there were about 400 dedicated EMS helicopters, but that number rose to more than 800 in 2008, according to the association. The number of hours logged for medical helicopters more than doubled between 1991 and 2005 to 300,000 hours in-flight a year.