Updated 12/31/2009 09:49 AM
Sky Battle, Part 3 - Mercy Flight vs. Air 1
The Onondaga County Sheriff's Department is named in a federal lawsuit that accuses them of stealing air medevac calls over Mercy Flight Central, a complete medevac service. Mercy Flight Central of Canandaguia claims the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department is violating the Federal Aviation Act by jumping calls to keep their chopper off the county's budget chopping-block. Mercy Flight is also suing TLC Emergency Medical Services, which dispatches medevac helicopters to accident and rescue scenes. In Part 3 of Sky Battle, Joleene Des Rosiers explores the accusations, and takes us inside TLC's so-called 'Clearinghouse.'
"TLC ambulance helicopter Clearinghouse. This is Joe speaking. How can I help you?"
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Somewhere on the ground in Cortland County, an EMT is in need of a helicopter.
"Number of patients you're gonna need to fly?"
The EMT is contacting the 'clearing house', an organization that monitors and dispatches upwards of seven different helicopter services throughout Central New York. Basically, the helicopter services call the clearing house to let them know they're available if needed. So when an instance arises, no time is wasted getting the closest, most appropriately staffed chopper to the scene.
"Good morning, State Police. This is Joe calling from the helicopter Clearinghouse. We have a call for you guys, it's gonna be in the county of Cortland, right in the city."
Paul Hyland, founder and CEO of Mercy Flight Central in Canandaguia once participated in the Clearinghouse. But he pulled out of it in October. Hyland alleges the system was created solely to benefit Onondaga County's Air-1 helicopter.
"It was the sheriff and some other people that wanted to make sure the sheriff's helicopter got the calls. That was the real focus of the Clearinghouse," says Hyland.
Onondaga County Undersheriff Warren Darby scoffs at the allegation. Especially, he says, because the number of medevac calls Air-1 takes is minimal.
"We're not using EMS to maintain Air 1," says Darby. "We're using EMS so that we're a complete public safety ship. And for whatever the need might be. EMS is a small piece of that need. It isn't the primary reason we're in the air. We're in the air to do law enforcement."
Using the records kept by the clearing house over the past five years, we counted the number of calls to determine if that was indeed the case. From 2005 to August of 2009, Mercy Flight was called more than any other service. Air-1 -- called the least. So if Mercy Flight is dispatched that much more than Air-1, why sue the county-owned aircraft?
"That's not the question here," Hyland says. "The question is the patient care and the jumping of calls. When they're not needed and we're not available, it's fine for them to take a call. When were sitting there 24/7 with a higher level of care and they jump the call, that's what's illegal."
Darby argues it's difficult to determine Mercy's availability when they choose not to participate in the clearing house. Clearinghouse dispatch manager Trish Hansen agrees. "They may be, potentially, the closest to where they need to go, but we don't know their status. So we can't contact them."
Darby adds, "When the Clearinghouse started, Mercy Flight was a signed participant with a signed agreement. As they got into it later on, they pulled that agreement and they are now a ship that isn't participating with the Clearinghouse. They have pulled out of the Clearinghouse a couple of times but they've come back. Because if they're not in the Clearinghouse and don't tell the dispatchers in the Clearinghouse that they're in service, the clearing house has to assume they're not in service."
Hyland argues police choppers are violating FAA regulations when his commercial chopper isn't called first. But Geb Wolf, a former New York State Police pilot of 25 years, says if a police chopper is already in the air on a mission, it only makes sense they respond to the incident.
"If a helicopter happens to be in the air in a particular area and something happens and they're right above the call, then obviously they are the closest available and they would hear the call go out," Wolf says.
Again, statistics show police choppers answer the fewest number of medevac calls. But Hyland calls the statistics questionable. He says sometimes the Clearinghouse will contact one service, record it was contacted, but then end up dispatching another service instead and never adjust the records to reflect the change.
"They're not accurate numbers," Hyland says. "There's a lot of times that they'll call us to go on a call, but they previously called the State Police or sheriff's and they didn't go, but still have on their list that state police took the call."
Now having said all this, Hyland says it's not about an air war. And it's not about money. He says, bottom line, it comes down to one thing and one thing only, patient care.
"This isn't about the Sheriff's Department or the State Police or Mercy Flight. We're talking about patient care, here. And everybody is avoiding that. They're just out there trying to grab these calls, and they're not really paying attention to what's best for the patient," Hyland says.
And Darby agrees, "The patient that needs to get to the hospital in what EMS calls that 'Golden Hour'. Get to the surgery that's necessary to save a life."
The Mercy Flight lawsuit is pending in the Northern District Federal Court.
There’s no word yet on when the lawsuit will be heard. Despite the lawsuit, Air-1 says they will continue to transport patients when necessary.