New chopper(s) possible for TraumaStar air ambulance service

TraumaStar's flight numbers have increased, the sheriff says.
TraumaStar's flight numbers have increased, the sheriff says.

Monroe County may soon be in the market for a new rescue helicopter -- or two.

The current county-owned TraumaStar helicopter, built in 1982 and flying more than ever, will need to be replaced at some point, Sheriff Rick Ramsay told Monroe County commissioners at their Wednesday meeting in Key West.

"We're definitely seeing more and more people using the [TraumaStar] service," Ramsay said. "That means more time flying and more time maintaining" the chopper.

Ramsay said the TraumaStar program, operated jointly by the Sheriff's Office and Monroe County Fire Rescue, has been considering its "future needs."

That could include replacing the current Sikorsky S-76A++ aircraft with two smaller helicopters "that are a lot cheaper to purchase and operate," he said.

Commissioner Sylvia Murphy opened the topic by asking Ramsay about "rumors of multiple [air] ambulances" being sought by the TraumaStar program. "I want somebody to explain how far this has gone," Murphy said.

Ramsay said a group of county staff -- 15 to 20 people including County Commissioner David Rice, a private pilot -- has been "in preliminary discussions" on possible changes.

"I apologize if this was perceived as some secret underground meeting," Ramsay said. "It's not private or secret.... We've been doing a lot of research on cost per [flight] hour, what's the best bang for the buck and what's the most feasible."

The current TraumaStar helicopter was acquired in 2006 for about $3.24 million. The aircraft is powered by two twin turbine engines and configured to carry up to two pilots, two patients and four care-givers.

But TraumaStar seldom needs to carry more than one patient at a time, Ramsay said. A new S-76 equipped for emergency service could cost more than $7 million.

"We do know the S-76 is expensive to operate and purchase," Ramsay said. "We're looking at the potential to buy two [Eurobus EC-135 helicopters] for the same dollar figure."

Many air-rescue helicopter operations have switched to smaller helicopters, he said. "You're not seeing a lot of larger aircraft because of the cost."

The county may be able to find two smaller air ambulances equipped for emergency treatment at a cost of $1.5 to $2.5 million each, Ramsay suggested. That would provide a second rescue helicopter when one is grounded for maintenance.

"The biggest thought is to keep the hours down on both ships" since the FAA requires inspections and maintenance at regular air-time intervals, the sheriff said.

TraumaStar flew about 400 flights to mainland hospitals last year but is on track for 500 flights -- about a third for accident victims, the balance for emergency transfers -- this year, Ramsay said. "That's well past our expectations.... We're flying a lot more than we thought we would."

The Florida Keys also are served by LifeNet, a private air-ambulance service. Keys residents are not charged for TraumaStar flights but could be charged nearly $60,000 for LifeNet flights, Ramsay said.

"I'm glad this planning is going on," Commissioner Danny Kolhage said. "It's far better than staff coming to us and saying: We need $4 million."

The funding source for any new rescue helicopters remains an open question. "That's probably above my pay grade," Ramsay said.