Congress has stepped in and taken action to upgrade standards by which emergency medical service (EMS) helicopters are operated. The Congressional legislation goes a long way toward ending the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shilly-shallying over National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommendations issued in 2006, and which were based on investigation of numerous fatal crashes involving helicopter ambulances (see Aviation Safety & Security Digest, , ‘Unsaved – The Deadly Medial Helicopter Accident Record,’ home page).
The Senate Commerce Committee reported out a bill in May 2008, called “S.1300, Aviation Investment & Modernization Act of 2007,” that funds the FAA for the 2008-2011 time frame. The legislation imposes new requirements on commercial air carriers and on operators of EMS helicopters; the requirements equate closely to the NTSB recommendations. For example, the NTSB recommended that EMS operations comply fully with Part 135 operations specifications, and the legislation does require this whenever a helicopter has medical personnel aboard. However, the legislation accords with the FAA position, exempting EMS flights from the requirement for weather reporting at their destination. Thus, helipads that do not have weather-reporting equipment or personnel required for a Part 135 flight’s approach will not be required to have this capability for, say, positioning flights. The FAA said in a 2007 letter to the NTSB that requiring full Part 135 compliance “would impose a significant burden on the owners/operators of these helipads to acquire this capability.”
The NTSB wanted a flight risk evaluation prepared for each EMS flight, to basically structure the determination as to whether the conditions were prohibitive or not for aerial evacuation. A checklist has been developed for such an assessment, but its use is not presently mandatory. The FAA originally was committed to requiring a flight risk as part of a medical evacuation company’s operations specifications (OpSpecs) by 2006. Now, two years later, Congress is directing the FAA to get this done within 18 months. This deadline is generous, to say the least, and it means that the flight risk evaluation will not be fully implemented until 2010. Giving the FAA six months would have been more appropriate given the unnecessary delay thus far.
The new law requires EMS operators to adopt dispatchers and the roles they play in airline operations. In a 2007 letter to the NTSB the FAA said it is embarking on a one-year study of this issue. The law seems to supersede the FAA’s stately approach.
Congress is requiring terrain avoidance systems, but only for helicopters acquired after the law enters into force. This seems an enormous loophole, as the hundreds of EMS helicopters now in service will not have to be retrofitted with the life-saving technology. While this technology will warn the pilot of potential impact with terrain, it will not alert aircrews to threatened collisions with other flying machines, as happened 29 June, when two EMS helicopters collided, killing six and critically injuring a seventh.
The new law requires the FAA to conduct a feasibility study of equipping new and existing EMS helicopters with cockpit voice and flight data recorders (CVR/FDR). Not said is what is to be done if such equipage were not feasible; rather, the law requires CVR/FDR’s to be installed within two years, which seems to make the feasibility study superfluous. Thus, all EMS machines will be required to have CVR/FDRs, but only new helicopters will be required to have terrain avoidance technology. In other words, only new aircraft will be required to have a system that will prevent accidents, but all EMS helicopters will have recorders for analysis of factors following accidents. The irony, of course, is that the CVR/FDR recordings might well indicate that collision with terrain could have been avoided with an appropriate warning system.
Relevant sections of the law follow:
“SEC. 508. INCREASING SAFETY FOR HELICOPTER EMERGENCY MEDICAL SERVICE OPERATORS.
(a) COMPLIANCE WIH 14 CFR PART 135 REGULATIONS. No later than 18 months after the date of enactment of this Act, all helicopter emergency medical service operators shall comply with the regulations in part 135 of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations whenever there is a medical crew on board, without regard to whether there are patients on board the helicopter.
(b) IMPLEMENTATION OF FLIGHT RISK EVALUATION PROGRAM. Within 60 days after enactment of this Act, the Federal Aviation Administration shall initiate, and complete within 18 months, a rulemaking
(1) to create a standardized checklist of risk evaluation factors based on its Notice 8000.301, issued in August, 2005; and
(2) to require helicopter emergency medical service operators to use the checklist to determine whether the mission should be accepted.
(c) COMPREHENSIVE CONSISTENT FLIGHT DISPATCH PROCEDURES. within 60 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Federal Aviation Administration shall initiate, and complete within 18 months, a rulemaking
(1) to create standardized flight dispatch procedures for helicopter emergency medical service operators based on regulations in part 121 of title 14, Code of Federal Regulations; and
(2) to require such operators to use those procedures for flights.
(d) IMPROVING SITUATIONAL AWARENESS. Any helicopter used for helicopter emergency medical service operations that is ordered, purchased, or otherwise obtained after the date of enactment of this Act shall have on board an operational terrain awareness and warning system that meets the technical specifications of section 135.154 of the Federal Aviation Regulations (14 C.F.R. 135.154).
(e) IMPROVING THE DATA AVAILABLE TO NTSB INVESTIGATORS AT CRASH SITES.
(1) STUDY. Within 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Federal Aviation Administration shall complete a feasibility study of requiring flight data and cockpit voice recorders on new and existing helicopters used for emergency medical service operations. The study shall address, at a minimum, issues related to survivability, weight, and financial considerations of such a requirement.
RULEMAKING. Within 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Federal Aviation Administration shall complete a rulemaking to require flight data and cockpit voice recorders on board such helicopters.”