Surge in Air Ambulance Crashes

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USA Today credits the deadly trend of pilot errors, industry carelessness and poor government oversight for the high number of medical helicopter crashes. Since 2000, 60 people have died in 84 crashes, including the Airheart wreck in south Walton County just nine months ago.

Doctors of shark attack victim Craig Hutto say the medical assistance the 16-year-old received on the beach and in the air on the way to Bay Medical Center probably saved his life. Gulf County was responsible for making the call for an air ambulance because Bay County does not provide medical helicopters.

"We have several air ambulance providers. Rural areas will call ahead of time, so they're prepared to respond when they arrive," says Randy Vick, Bay County EMS Director.

The air crew was prepared and a leg is the only thing Hutto lost, but a report by USA Today shows too many emergency airlifts end up like this. In the past five years more than 10 percent of the nation's air ambulance fleet crashed. That statistic hit close to home when a pilot, flight nurse and paramedic died in an air ambulance crash over the Choctawhatchee Bay.

Bad weather is believed to have played a part in the Airheart crash, which was also to blame in about two-thirds of the nation's fatal air ambulance crashes since 2000, according to USA Today.

Bay County relies on 20 ground ambulances to respond to more than 20,000 calls a year. In their more than 30-year history the county's EMS has only had a handful of accidents and even fewer patient injuries in those crashes.

"With our safety record I don't see us getting into the helicopter business," says Vick.

Not only can air ambulances be risky, Vick says it's also costly and the patient will likely pick up the tab. Air ambulance firms charge around $7,500 per flight, but industry leaders say thousands of lives are saved each year by speedy flights to the hospital. Far more than are lost in crashes.