Air Evac Lifeteam takes
emergency services to rural people
by Jim McCarty
On a northeast Missouri
farm a woman watches in horror as her husband’s tractor slowly tips
over and pins him underneath. She grabs her phone and quickly dials a
toll-free number. In short order the alien drumbeat of a helicopter splits
Evac 13 based in St. Clair returns from a mission. The service has
36 bases in 10 states. Most of the bases are in small towns like St.
Clair, population 4,000.
The chopper sets down
close to the accident scene with a crew of three on board — a pilot,
a registered nurse and a paramedic. They set to work digging the man out
from under the tractor. They load him into the helicopter and make a beeline
for the hospital at 130 mph.
Every day similar
tragedies take place across rural America. Often the outcome is tragic
because the level of care needed by the patient is not available or the
distance to the hospital too vast.
In this case the patient
survives, his life saved thanks to Air
Evac Lifeteam, a helicopter ambulance service with 36 mostly rural
bases in Missouri and nine other states.
Air Evac got its start
in 1985 when a group of private citizens from West Plains founded the
company to give rural people in this south-central Missouri area better
access to emergency care. Roads in this part of Missouri are treacherous,
so accidents are common. While West Plains has a hospital, the nearest
trauma center is a 120-mile drive to Springfield.
Evac has overlapping bases in 10 states. Most are in small towns
like Yellville, Ark., population 1,700.
a basic concept we’ve got to get across,” says Colin Collins,
CEO of Air Evac. “Urgency and time are extremely important in some
medical conditions. Every minute, every second counts.”
Collins says rapid
response to an accident is an issue metro areas have solved but rural
areas have not. He says urban ambulances are located so that, on average,
no person is more than six minutes away. Rural areas average 17 minutes
response time, then 54 minutes to arrive at a hospital capable of dealing
He says when it comes
to life-threatening injuries, 10 percent of urban patients will die. In
rural areas nearly 40 percent won’t survive.
in Missouri are funded at the local level. So rural areas, with low population
densities, lag behind their urban counterparts.
been with families when the surgeon comes out and says, ‘I’m
sorry, but the injuries were just too severe to sustain life.’ What
he should have said is we didn’t have what we needed here to save
his life. Because probably if that injury had happened in Columbia, Greene
County or Jackson County he would have lived,” says Collins, who
was CEO of Ozarks Medical Center in West Plains when Air Evac was founded.
state-of-the-art communications center in West Plains dispatches and
tracks each helicopter.
Collins was involved
in the medical field for many years and saw first hand the disparity between
rural and urban services. He left the field for a time and when he returned
nothing had changed.
nothing on the horizon that’s going to push the level of technology
out to areas like this,” he says.
Instead of fighting
a losing battle to bring rural hospitals up to big city standards, Air
Evac’s founders turned instead to getting rural people to urban
hospitals faster. Air ambulance services were nothing new. Following the
Vietnam War helicopters started appearing in places like St. Louis, Kansas
City and Columbia. When a rural person needed their services they had
to wait for the helicopter to travel to them.
Air Evac tried a different
approach. Its helicopters are based where they are needed. When the service
started West Plains was the smallest city in the United States with a
dedicated air ambulance service. Air Evac can still make that claim with
a base in Yellville, Ark., population 1,700.
Evac personnel load a patient into a waiting helicopter during a
simulated rescue. Photo courtesy of Air Evac Lifeteam
Besides the West Plains
base, Air Evac helicopters fly out of Missouri towns like St. Clair, Troy,
Poplar Bluff, Farmington and Cape Girardeau. Northeast Missouri has coverage
from nearby Quincy, Ill., and the southwest corner benefits from Arkansas
bases at Springdale and Yellville.
Those who got the
operation off the ground in 1985 had a philosophy in mind: “We believe
we should be able to live in rural areas,” says Ken Harper, membership
director for Air Evac and one of the three original founders. “Why
should anyone be penalized by where they want to live?”
Ken came up with a
plan that made bringing an expensive service to a town of 9,000 possible.
His idea was modeled after a similar service in Switzerland that sold
memberships to cover the expense of operations. He took the plan to Bill
Chritton, a helicopter pilot and Vietnam veteran who was running a strawberry
me to take the business plan and read it,” says Chritton. “I
read it and then re-read it. I tossed and turned during the night and
the next day said, ‘I believe we can make this work.’”
keep expenses down Air Evac buys used helicopters and completely
rebuilds them in its West Plains maintenance facility.
Air Evac found quarters
in a tiny room at the West Plains hospital. “We had three pilots
who did everything including being president of the company,” says
Chritton, one of the original three pilots and current chairman of the
board. To keep the fledgling operation running Chritton poured thousands
of dollars of his own money into Air Evac.
From those humble
beginnings the service quickly spread until, today, new bases open at
the rate of one per month. The service has flown more than 70,000 missions
and saved countless lives. Nearly 300,000 have joined. They come in at
the rate of 300 per day, Harper says.
That the company is
so successful speaks volumes of the dedicated people who refused to believe
their task was impossible.
Despite its success
Air Evac is far from a gold-plated company, Collins is quick to point
out. The 700 employees do whatever they can to keep expenses low.
The same Bell 206 Longranger helicopters are used at each base. The company
buys them used, then rebuilds them in a facility located at the West Plains
airport. This way parts can be interchanged and pilot training is standardized.
members do routine tasks on the helicopter like refueling after a
flight. They sleep in Spartan quarters at the base, which in this
case is a mobile home at the St. Clair Airport.
Bases have grown outward
from West Plains so they are mutually supportive. If one base gets a call,
the neighboring base can offer backup.
Although it doesn’t
cover all the costs, the membership base remains the key to the organization’s
survival. Membership costs $40 for an individual, $45 for a couple or
$50 for a family membership. A $500 lifetime membership is also available.
Members agree to let
Air Evac bill their insurance if they have any. Otherwise the service
Non-members are not
denied services. However non-members will be billed for the cost of the
flight, which can be as much as $8,000.
Clint Hinds of Willow
Springs joined Air Evac in 1985. “We joined just to help get the
thing going,” he says. “I hoped we’d never need it.”
Recently Hinds was
strapped into the helicopter and transported from West Plains to Springfield
after he suffered chest pains.
out good,” he says. “I was glad to have it available. They
just knew I was a member and loaded me up.
Evac Lifeteam helicopters can put down just about anywhere, making
them perfect for air transport in rural areas. Besides offering rapid
transport to critical care hospitals, each helicopter is staffed by
a registered nurse and a paramedic with years of emergency training.
Photo courtesy of Air Evac Lifeteam.
One woman has made
10 trips in Air Evac helicopters. The service’s crews responded
to the tornadoes that struck Missouri in May and to the 2002 Oklahoma
bridge collapse. Besides providing the air ambulance service Air Evac
is working to improve the level of emergency care in rural areas by offering
an intensive training program free for paramedics and registered nurses.
While Collins is proud
of the accomplishments Air Evac has made, he says the service is barely
making a dent in what needs to be done. “We need more helicopters,
five to six more just in Missouri,” he says.
To do that rural people
need to become members. “That is how you keep the helicopters out
there,” he says. “We want everyone to be a member.”
For more information
call 1-800-793-0010, send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit www.lifeteam.net