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How excessive heat threatens helicopter and emergency response safety

How excessive heat threatens helicopter and emergency response safety

STANFORD, California – The call came at 2 p.m. on Sunday: A driver had suffered a brain injury in a traffic accident and needed to be flown to another hospital as quickly as possible.

Lead helicopter pilot Douglas Evans noted the 115-degree Celsius temperature in Redding, California, where he had to land. It was probably even hotter on the tarmac. In the 27 years he has flown rescue helicopters in California, Evans has never had to cancel a flight due to heat – until now.

Evans and other emergency pilots are used to California’s Wind, fog and fire smoke affect their flight decisions. But extreme heat, like the current wave sweeping the West, affects the way rescue helicopters can carry out their missions.

High temperatures, increasing due to human-caused climate change, are altering operations across much of the state. REACH Air Medical Services, which operates 30 helicopter bases across California, denied at least two rescue calls over the weekend because of excessive heat, said Vicky Spediacci, the company’s COO. “That’s pretty rare. It can be isolated, but this was widespread,” she said.

In hot weather, the company sometimes changes routes to land at an airport where there are fewer obstacles, rather than on site. Landing in a tight area can require more engine power, which is more difficult in hot temperatures, says Spediacci, who was a pilot for 40 years.

The heat is making it difficult to transport patients and carry out rescue operations in the region’s national parks, where helicopters are essential in the wilderness. When hikers get lost or stuck on remote trails, helicopters are sometimes dispatched to find and rescue them.

National parks such as Joshua Tree and Death Valley are warning visitors that a helicopter may not be able to reach ambitious hikers in the heat, park rangers said. When temperatures exceed 49 degrees — which has already happened this year in parts of California, including Death Valley — rescue helicopters often cannot fly.

Because of the heat, no helicopter could fly to Death Valley for a rescue this weekend, officials said. Six motorcyclists were riding together through the park. One person died from heat exposure, another was “treated for severe heat illness” and taken to a hospital, and four were treated at the scene and released, officials said.

“Due to the high temperatures, rescue helicopters were unable to respond as they generally cannot fly safely in temperatures above 49 degrees,” a press release said, noting that it was 59 degrees that day.

Nichole Andler, a ranger at Death Valley Park, said in an interview Tuesday that the deceased person was pronounced dead at the scene. Rangers called a helicopter for the seriously injured person, but the helicopter declined because it was too hot outside, she said. The injured person was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Pahrump, Nevada, and later to Las Vegas, she said. Her condition is unknown.

Andler told The Washington Post earlier this month that during the summer, the park receives one to three requests a month for rescue helicopters to transport people to medical care. Sometimes patients are transported by ambulance to higher, cooler altitudes where a helicopter can take off and land more safely.

“As temperatures rise more frequently, it becomes more difficult to help,” Andler said.

At Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, known for its dramatic desert landscapes, helicopter rescues can occur three to five times a year, said Anna Marini, a park ranger. Temperatures in the park were recorded above 40 degrees Celsius all weekend.

A few weeks ago, Marini said, the park requested a helicopter for a hiker who suffered heat stroke off the trail during the afternoon. The terrain was neither level nor easily accessible by car, and it was cool enough to rescue the person by helicopter. But in hotter weather, such rescues may not be possible, she said.

“Intense heat puts a much greater strain on the helicopters,” Marini noted. “This could affect our operations.”

When it’s hot, the air is thin, meaning the rotor blades have less air to grip. This affects their ability to take off and navigate. Onboard systems can overheat and fail. Pilots must make adjustments to weight, equipment and route planning – or they may have to refuse to fly altogether.

When Evans, who works for Stanford Life Flight, Stanford University Hospital’s rescue helicopter program, checked conditions on Sunday, he knew the helicopter’s engine, radio and computers were in danger of malfunctioning.

“This is something we need to be more aware of now,” Evans said. “I see the situation getting worse and I expect it to only get worse,” he said.

By 5:30 p.m., a team in Redding that had also initially declined the mission because of the heat decided it was cool enough to transport the patient, said Michael Baulch, program manager at Stanford Life Flight. They arrived in Stanford by 8 p.m. but had lost crucial hours waiting for cooler weather, he said.

Until Tuesday, Baulch said, the patient’s condition had been stable.

The Airbus EC-145 that Stanford flies is equipped for many missions. It can transport newborns from one facility to another; it can fly patients across the state to state-of-the-art operating rooms while their chests are open during heart surgery; it can easily navigate rush hour traffic and arrive at the scene of an accident long before the ambulance.

“We can’t lift that much weight in this heat,” said Baulch. “Either we have to leave people or equipment behind.”

The 40-year-old unit, which operates as far south as Santa Barbara and as far east as Reno, Nevada, performs about 480 medical transports each year. About 30 percent of those are responses to 911 calls.

Deep in the basement of Stanford Hospital, a busy 24/7 operation with about six employees and at least 20 screens is taking calls and requests for air medical support. When a call comes in, the control center radios the pilot and asks if the weather is good for flying.

“We will not disclose the details of the case to the pilot to avoid any bias,” Baulch said.

If the flight is approved, the nurses and the pilot on duty zip up their thick, fire-resistant coveralls and board the helicopter.

Flying over the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Stanford team felt the heat. Temperatures were in the high 80s, but the helicopter sat in the sun while the crew trained local firefighters and park rangers on how to assist the crew in a rescue.

The engine got as hot as it could safely get, said Evans, the pilot.

The non-breathable maroon suits covered the crew’s legs and arms. On this cloudless Saturday, the sun shone through the cockpit window while weak currents of air blew out of the air conditioning vents.

The flight lasted only five minutes, but after landing, employees stripped off their clothes and grabbed chilled water bottles and frozen treats they keep on base. The flights can last up to two hours for them.

“Basically, you just sit there and fry,” said Kent Cramer, one of the ship’s nurses, as he sucked on a lime-green Popsicle.

Kevin So, another nurse, rolled out a bulky turquoise device the crew affectionately calls a “snorkel.” Attached to the box is a tube that blows cold air into the cockpit while the plane is on the tarmac.

Sometimes Evans flies to higher altitudes to cool the helicopter, but often climbing means less oxygen for a patient who is already in distress.

Even below the 49-degree mark, high temperatures affect the team’s work. “Over 40 degrees, we can only work on the ground for 15 minutes,” said Evans.

Evans knew he wanted to be a pilot from an early age. He started out flying small planes, but he found it was more fun to be able to move sideways and backwards, hover and fly between the trees. The fact that he flies to save lives only makes the job more rewarding.

His favorite missions are those that involve obstacles: landing on bridges or beaches or piloting the helicopter in the middle of a city.

However, he hadn’t expected the heat. And he expects that his work will be even more difficult if he has to turn down more flights.

“That’s the hardest part of the job,” he said, “saying no.”