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The Truth About Medical Helicopter Crashes

The Truth About Medical Helicopter Crashes

—And Why Truth Is So Hard To Find

Why do so many medical helicopters crash?

It’s a fair question.

One that begs an answer.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably asked yourself this very question, right?

You’re a smart person, and you know most air medical crews are smart too.

Common sense tells you these professionals are taking every safety precaution possible.

Nobody rational goes to work thinking it’s their last day alive. No flight crews get into medical helicopters unless they believe it’s safe.

Yet…

Medical helicopters keep crashing.

Why?

Before I share the EMS Flight Safety Network opinion on why medical helicopters crash, I want to address some of the arguments (ones I know you’ll hear), about why medical helicopters crash.

Stating The Obvious About Medical Helicopter Crashes

It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway.

The goal of all discussion regarding medical helicopter crashes is to prevent future crashes. Period.

Sadly, there are places on the internet where other agendas win out. That’s the reason I’m stating the obvious. Understandably, there’s a ton of emotion attached to every EMS helicopter crash.

When highly trained professionals risk their lives to help others, and then lose their lives in the process, it’s tragic and emotional.

No doubt about it.

That’s one of the reasons it’s important to talk about medical helicopter crashes. The best way to honor the memory of lost air medical crews is by taking personal responsibility for making air medical better and safer. Burying your head in the sand will not bring lost crews back to life, or protect future crews.

My Best Advice On Medical Helicopter Crashes

Answers about why medical helicopters crash are hard to find. Why?

Because truth is a tough demon to fight. It’s much easier to hide behind emotion than to address real issues.

When it comes to answers about why medical helicopters crash, my best advice is to constantly remind yourself that every health system, helicopter company and association has an agenda.

An agenda bigger than any one helicopter crash.

All have biases and preconceived ideas about what’s most important when it comes to medical helicopter safety.

These biases influence how they share information about medical helicopter crashes, and what actions they take to prevent them. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it is something you definitely want to keep top of mind.

Never forget that your best advocate for crew safety is you.

Don’t be fooled by the “smoke and mirrors” of statistics from government agencies with unlimited budgets, time and people – who coincidentally, NEVER fly on medical helicopters.

If you’re professional air medical crew, wannabe crew or just someone who loves helicopters: remember that if something just plain feels wrong, it doesn’t matter how many people try to convince you it’s a new and better way. It’s still just plain wrong.

It really is that simple.

The Problem With Unlimited Information

You’ve probably heard the cliche about opinions and a-holes, right?

Well, there’s some truth to it.

Everyone has an opinion about why medical helicopters crash, but very few of these opinions have any basis in reality. Even fewer opinions come from people who have ever flown in medical helicopters.

This creates some practical challenges.

Think of it this way: you can’t lose weight reading a book about weight loss, right? You have to actually take action and DO the steps required to lose weight. Everyone gets this. But there are still thousands of weight-loss diets and libraries full of books about the best ways to lose weight.

And here’s the kicker: when it’s all said and done – move more, eat less – never really changes when it comes to weight loss.

Information about Medical helicopters works the same way.

You can find all kinds of information about medical helicopter crashes, but very little of that information is practical or useful. Most of the information has nothing to do with why helicopters crash and how to prevent future crashes. It’s typically one of two things:

  1. A wolf in sheep’s clothing – meaning it’s “safety information” with the real intent of forwarding a company or association agenda.
  2. Big data – reams of statistics and information that unfiltered is virtually useless.

But don’t take my word for it, do your own investigation.

Even a small amount of research will quickly lead you to conflicting information about why medical helicopters continue to crash.

So what’s the solution? Start by knowing and understanding your sources.

Examples Of Medical Helicopter Crash ‘Solutions’

The air medical industry likes to point fingers at information availability.

What is information availability and what does it have to do with medical helicopters?

Information availability is about how much news coverage is committed to any particular newsworthy event. In regard to medical helicopters, it’s a view that says all medical helicopter crashes get massive amounts of press and publicity.

Like all good arguments, there’s some truth to this viewpoint. Medical helicopter crashes do get lots of publicity and news coverage.

But, here’s the catch…

The people who push the information availability viewpoint would have you believe medical helicopters don’t crash very often. They describe medical helicopter crashes as statistically insignificant. They believe the number of medical helicopter crashes is so small that the real issue is more about public perception than helicopter crashes.

They believe when medical helicopters crash, the media jumps all over it and makes a big fuss about it. That’s the argument behind information availability as an answer to why medical helicopters crash.

For the record, since when is even one medical helicopter crash not a big deal? It certainly is a big deal to the countless lives it changes forever.

The Apples Vs. Oranges Medical Helicopter Solution

A second viewpoint of medical helicopter crashes is what I call the “apples to oranges” comparison and solution.

It goes something like this:

Government agencies with unlimited budgets and time recite mind-numbing statistics comparing commercial airline crashes to medical helicopter crashes.

Right about the moment your eyes glaze over from the sheer boredom of listening to the world’s worst public speakers read from their notes or powerpoint slides, the presenter admits medical helicopters do crash at a rate almost four times greater than commercial airlines.

This admission is immediately followed by a caveat about the explosive growth of the air medical industry over the last decade.

The end result is always some version of “more data is needed” before any conclusions can be made.

What is implied is that medical helicopter crashes may actually be decreasing or less than previous years in relative terms. What’s further implied is that somehow the FAA’s efforts had something to do with this decline in crashes.

To be kind, it’s not very helpful or useful information.

If after reading this section you’re angry that you’ll never get this time back in your life, please know that I feel your pain. Be thankful you got the cliff notes version of the typical government bureaucrat presentation.

What the FAA lacks in real results, they compensate for with repetition.

A Second Apples to Oranges Solution

A second “apples to oranges” comparison you’ll find without too much difficulty is a comparison of ambulance crashes to helicopter crashes.

This information is not useful or helpful in regard to preventing future helicopter crashes. The conclusion is always some version of how ambulances and ground vehicles experience many many more crashes than helicopters or aircraft. The conclusion typically circles back to tie in to the information availability argument.

The one positive to this comparison is how it highlights the real risks for our EMS ground providers. I’m glad to see these risks recognized and hopefully the exposure leads to positive change for ambulance staff.

So what’s the answer?

The Truth is Worse Than You Think

What’s the real truth about medical helicopter crashes?

The truth is there are no new reasons for helicopter crashes.

The air medical industry continues to make the same mistakes it made a decade ago.

Need proof?

Read the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports. What you’ll notice almost immediately are patterns. We keep repeating the same mistakes… over and over.

There are no “new” reasons for medical helicopter crashes, only new interpretations of the data. Sad, but true.

What To Do Now

So where do we go from here?

Now that we know the truth, what do we do about it?

The EMS Flight Safety Network opinion is the topic of different upcoming articles. Spoiler alert: you can definitely find some of our philosophies on improving the medical helicopter crash record in this article: 5 Ways EMS Goes from Good To Great.


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About the Author: Troy is an Air Medical Career Expert passionate about a team approach to improving air medical safety from the ground up. Troy is a former Army medic, Army pilot, Coast Guard pilot and EMS pilot. Troy has taught hundreds of wannabe flight medics, flight nurses and EMS pilots the exact steps needed to launch air medical careers.

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