February 3, 2009 -- Although the nationwide system of medevac helicopters is designed to save lives, it is actually in crisis itself, an ABC News investigation has found.
Since 2004, there have been 53 crashes, resulting in the deaths of 77 people. Despite these fatalities, medevac helicopters are quickly becoming a fast growing business with intense competition for patients. Today, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) opened a four-day set of hearings into the medevac crashes.
Once the work of ground ambulances, these helicopters are now dispatched about 1000 times each day, in most cases for non-emergency situations. Critics say that because Medicare and insurance companies are willing to pay up to $10,000 a flight, it creates a strong business incentive for companies to perform as many flights as possible.
"Some may say we're in the business to save lives," said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB. "But what they're really in the business to do, like any other for-profit company, they're in business to make money," he said of the helicopter companies.
Officials of the NTSB say that among the problems behind the rash of fatal medevac crashes are companies refusing to invest in safety equipment and flying missions under questionable weather and visibility conditions.
Business insider Dawn Mancuso, executive director of the Association of Air Medical Services, said the industry recognizes there is a problem with accidents and "we're trying to do our best to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Others, like Chris Waters, aren't convinced that enough is being done. His wife, Stephanie, was one of four people killed in a helicopter crash in Huntsville, TX last June. Waters was still grieving months after the crash when he discovered that Stephanie's company took the flight even after another company turned it down because of bad weather conditions.
"It was the worst thing that could happen," Waters told ABC News.
What happened in Stephanie's case is a common industry practice known as "helicopter shopping."
"They are responsible for the death of my wife," Waters said of the helicopter company that employed Stephanie and made the decision to take the flight on which she was killed. He attended today's hearing to urge for tougher standards.
Former medevac paramedic John Wade said the practice is causing devastating consequences.
"My friends are dying because of it," Wade said. "If one company turns down the flight due to weather, it should be done with."
While there remains no federal requirement to institute a centralized dispatch system to eliminate helicopter shopping, New Jersey is one of the few states that has a program in place. New Jersey's centralized dispatch system works closely with a number of operators; most notably the New Jersey State police, who is proud of its record of having zero accidents or crashes in its 20 years of operation.
"We make a decision solely on the safety of flight," said Captain Jack McKevitt of the New Jersey State Police. "We always know the aircraft is in top notch condition and we have no pressure from anybody whether to take a flight or not take a flight."
Federal safety officials, too, acknowledge that there is a serious problem. The NTSB said that four urgent recommendations they made three years ago have been ignored, including that medevac choppers be equipped with night vision goggles and terrain detection equipment, for which there still is no FAA requirement.
"Of the 55 accidents we looked at," said Sumwalt, "we found that 29 of those 55 could have been prevented if any of the four recommendations that we issued had been implemented."
In a statement to ABC News, the FAA said it recognizes that some operators are flying beyond the capabilities of their pilots or helicopters and they are doing their best to promote safety.