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Air ambulance told to stand down: Dolynny
Health minister admits policies on dispatching emergency services lacking after fatal highway crash

Katherine Hudson
Northern News Services
Published Friday, March 01, 2013

After needling Health Minister Tom Beaulieu with questions about highway emergency response policies after last week's horrific tractor-trailer crash on Highway 3, Range Lake MLA Daryl Dolynny finally got "to the meat of the matter" Wednesday, although it wasn't reassuring.

Beaulieu said there are no clear protocols that speak to air rescue services by a helicopter or a floatplane in the territory, or for performing rescues on a highway outside the jurisdiction of community governments.

"I think that the system, the government recognizes this as a gap in the system," he said.

Beaulieu said in extreme emergency situations, the Department of Health and Social Services, the health authorities, the RCMP and military may choose one of these response methods to rescue people.

"During the time there is an incident and the key people are brought together, the call is made on a case-by-case basis and not within the policy," he said.

Dolynny said a forensic review of medical travel is necessary of both ground and air ambulances services after an air ambulance helicopter in Yellowknife was directed to stand down and not fly to the scene.

"Our ground ambulance program is in dire need of an overhaul ... The communities have been asking for a ground ambulance program. In my case I'm looking at our air ambulance protocols: what does it constitute to initiate an air ambulance?" said Dolynny.

The questions come after a fatal crash involving two transport trucks 84 km north of Fort Providence on Feb. 19. The only survivor of the three involved in the crash, who has not yet been identified, was transported first to Fort Providence in what was described as a "health centre van," and then flown to Yellowknife where he was treated at Stanton Territorial Hospital before being medevaced to Edmonton.

It has yet to be revealed how long it took for emergency services to reach him or what sort of medical equipment was on board the van. The present condition of the survivor was not known at press time. Persons who arrived at the scene shortly after the crash described the man as being "pretty banged up," and suspected he had suffered internal injuries.

The Department of Health and Social Services had no information to provide at press time.

As unfortunate as last week's collision was, the accident might be a "pivotal point" to give impetus for the GNWT to review its protocols concerning emergency response in the territory, said Dolynny.

While Alberta Health Services (AHS) does not own or operate rotary air ambulances, it uses contracted air ambulance helicopter services to support ground ambulances for emergency response.

According to an AHS spokesperson, "a helicopter is used for emergency medical assistance in situations where either a traditional ambulance cannot reach the scene easily or quickly enough, or the patient needs to be transported over a distance of terrain that makes air transportation the most practical."

A physician makes a clinical decision on the most appropriate resource for patient transportation - whether it be ground ambulance, fixed wing, or rotary helicopter.

"What activities do (NWT) air ambulances have in terms of services throughout all the highway systems and communities?" asked Dolynny.

"And let's take a serious, sober look at our ground ambulance program and put the right dollars into it."

Dolynny said the root of the highway emergency response includes the departments of Municipal and Community Affairs as well as Transportation and he'll be continuing his questioning of ministers next week.

- with files from Simon Whitehouse

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