Cantwell Works to Strengthen Air Safety Requirements and Make Our Skies Safer

WASHINGTON, DC – On Monday, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) introduced the Air Medical Service Safety Improvement Act of 2009, which aims to improve safety for flight crews, flight nurses, and passengers aboard emergency air medical service helicopters.


“The purpose of emergency air medical service is to save lives, not endanger them,” Cantwell said. “This bill represents our commitment to improving safety for the flight crews, flight nurses, and passengers aboard these helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. Emergency air medical service is, by its nature, dangerous work, but there are a number of actions that can be taken to reduce the risk.  This bill will implement new procedures and improve standards already in place through strengthened safety requirements, comprehensive flight dispatch and flight-following procedures, improved situation awareness of helicopter air crews, and better data available to NTSB investigators at crash sites so air medical safety operators can learn from accidents.”


On January 25, 2006, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a report identifying recurring gaps in the safety of air medical emergency operators that must be addressed, including:


  • Less stringent requirements for emergency medical operations conducted without patients on board;
  • A lack of aviation flight risk-evaluation programs;
  • A lack of consistent, comprehensive flight dispatch procedures; and
  • No requirements to use technologies such as terrain awareness and warning systems that have the power to enhance flight safety.


Responding to a number of fatal helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) accidents in 2008, the NTSB held a four-day public hearing in February 2009 on HEMS operations that highlighted the same safety issues NTSB had identified three years earlier. 


Cantwell became involved in the issue of emergency air medical service safety when an EMS helicopter crashed in the Puget Sound in Washington state.  Cantwell was able to get the NTSB’s four recommendations for improving safety included into the FAA reauthorization bill reported by the Commerce Committee in 2007. According to a study by Johns Hopkins University, one in four medical helicopters will crash during its 15 years of service.


Key provisions of Cantwell’s bill include:


  • Compliance Regulations: With limited exception, requires helicopters or fixed wing aircraft providing emergency medical service to fly under the under same rules for weather minimums, and duty and rest time regulations whether or not there is a patient on board.
  • Implementation of Flight Risk Evaluation Program:  Requires the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to initiate a rulemaking to create a standardized checklist of risk evaluation factors, and to require emergency medical service operators to use this checklist.
  • Comprehensive Consistent Flight Dispatch Procedures:  Requires the FAA to initiate a rulemaking to require that emergency medical service operators implement performance based flight dispatch and flight following procedures.
  • Improve Situational Awareness:  Require emergency medical service operators to install an on board device that provides terrain awareness and warning system.
  • Improve the Data Available on Air Medical Operations:  Require air medical service operators to report to the FAA on: the number of aircraft and helicopters used to provide air ambulance services, including registration numbers and base locations; the number of flights and hours flown by each aircraft; and, the number of flights and purpose of each flight.
  • Improve the Data Available to the National Transportation Safety Board:  Give the FAA 120 days to report to Congress on the availability, survivability, size, weight, and cost of flight data recording equipment. 


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