They are known as the ER of the sky. Saving firing victims, accident victims and victims of countless other medical emergencies and it's all just a days work for Air Evac medics.
Newschannel 6's Inside Texoma host Ashley Fitzwater takes a look at this extraordinary job, the people who do it, and the impact it has on the lives of others and their own.
They are the flight team most of us only see in the sky, but the Air Evac base in the Falls is full of men and women who many have come to trust with their lives, but this job is no 9 to 5. It's long hours, dedication, and one that truly takes heart to do!
"We work with a three man crew. We have a pilot, nurse, and a paramedic, I'm the nurse that's on duty for today. Same crew 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The medical crews work 24 hour shifts. One day on 2 days off. The pilots work 12 hour shifts and then they have a rotation they go through. The usually work several days in a row 5 to 7 days in a row. "
The medical crew is made up of both the nurse and paramedic....but each bring their own skills and benefits.
"We have basically the same responsibilities. Our company is set up the same way throughout the country. All 92 aircraft that with have with a medic and nurse on board and we work that combination because/ it covers both side of the typed of flights we do. We do both inter hospital transfers as well as scene flights. Accidents and those types of things. So we cover both sides. The nurses have the ER and critical experience from ICU and paramedics on board have street experience where they work with the EMS, and car wrecks and accident scenes and that sort of things. So we have the best of both worlds as far as the types of patients that we fly."
The medical crew also cross trains and has equal say in what is done, but the flying is left to one.
"The pilots and the medical crews are completely separated. The company does not allow the pilots to have any medical training. They don't want them to be EMTs they just want them to be pilots. That is there sole responsibility. They've got the tough the job. There job is to get us in the air and keep us in the air and get us on the ground safe. And the two guys in the back take care of all the medical stuff." Although separate, this team of three is truly a family.
"This is our home away from home. Medical crews are here for 24 hours at a time so we have sleeping quarters for all of the crew. Medical crew works 24 hour shifts so our company encourages that we take safety naps. Cause we do work a 24 hour shift. And we don't know when we are going to be up all night. So at some point in the day the crew will go in and they will take a couple hour nap or whatever if there is nothing going on and we have all of our chores done and that type of thing."
The base has a kitchen, washer and dryer, and three bedrooms with all the comforts of home.
"We have a bed and a recliner and a TV and desk...We each have our own room. We have one for each type of crew member. The pilot, nurse and medic."
"It's always the medics room or always the nurses room. We have lockers and we keep our personal stuff here. We have our own bedding, and we bring our own food and stuff and we have extra uniforms, and like I said, we live here for 24 hours or more sometimes depending what's going on. Back when we had all the big snowstorms, we were stranded here for a couple of days and so we come expecting to be here for more than 24 hours."
"When you get here, for you it's 24 hours. We came on at 8 this morning and get off at 8 tomorrow morning."
An Air Evac nurse said, "A typical day, we come in and meet up with off going crew as they are getting up and getting ready to leave, and they will give us a report as to what they did yesterday so we kind of know what their day was like, if there is any paperwork to be followed up on. Then we go out to the aircraft and do our daily checks on the aircraft. We have a checklist we follow. For all of our medical equipment in the back and we check to makes sure that all of that is ready to go and everything is there before we get out first flight for the day."
and once they're set they wait for a call to help.
"It's just like being a fireman at a fire station. We have the same type of daily routines. Were basically available to public if they come in during the day...we go through our air craft checks, follow up on paper work from shift or day before, we do our daily chores, clean building, vacuum the floors, take out the trash.and then we are just sitting here waiting for a call to come in."
They also bring in food to cook and eat.
"Like I said--a lot of times we cook, we try to eat healthy and not eat fast food. So a lot of times we will bring food in to cook; whatever it is we want for that day. And we take turns cooking or we cook for each other...I'm pretty lucky most of the people I work with are about as equal a chef as I am so we all just kind of take turns."
And it's crucial to take advantage of the in-house kitchen since they always have to be close by and ready to go. Once a call comes in, this team has to be ready and in the air in five minutes. This base has some advantages that help it get into the air even quicker.
"We are very lucky here in Wichita Falls that we have our hanger attached to our crew quarters. So we don't have to go outside to get to the helicopter."
"This is a Bell 206 aircraft. Our company uses exclusively this as well as 407. We have a few that have the 407. It's located in hangar today cause it's so hot outside. Traditionally if weather is comparable we have it out on pad ready to go but it's getting warm and we have to keep medications and drugs at a certain temp so we have to bring it back in to keep it cool."
Keeping the helicopter packed and ready to go also helps them to meet that 5 minute in the air response time, but it doesn't stop there--when the chopper is in the hangar, there's even something else lending a helping hand.
"We have a little transport system that picks the aircraft up and has hydraulic power and we just drive it outside and set it down and it's ready to go."
But the job well done isn't just in the crews ability to quickly get to a scene it's also on the job completed. The Wichita Falls base has been awarded several times for its hard work.
"Our company has a regional and national program and we won both regional and national awards within the company. The first was mist improved, we got community service national, even for the floods and other things we do,we got the community award. We have also been awarded Texas region, all of Texas, base of year the last two years. We feel lucky we are the flagship base because/ of winning two years in a row and that has never happened anywhere else in the company."
It's even landed them a brand new aircraft.
"This particular aircraft is brand new. It came to us just a couple of months ago straight from the factory. We got it had a new car smell. That's how new it is. We work very hard as a base maintaining our call volume and working hard within in the community and good things with the company to get them to send us a new aircraft for our base."
"This is the best job I have ever had, I'm very proud. I have been here since the beginning. I was a crew member when we first started so it's nice to see the things we have worked so hard to get over the years. Al those years working hard. It's a very proud thing. We have air Evac stickers on the back of our car that say air Evac with a helicopter and you know there are only 12 in town that's how many we have at the base, and it's a very special thing to be apart of that."
The private company is based in 14 states, with a number of bases in Texas.
"In Wichita Falls our primary response area is a 100 mile radius," one Air Evac nurse said. "We go as far west as Childress and as far east as Nocona and Muenster. South, we go Olney and Graham, across to Jacksboro and Bowie and Nocona. And then north up into Oklahoma. Altus, Hollis, Lawton, Waurika. We have aircraft that are part of our company based in Lawton, Mineral Wells, Decatur, Sherman, Abilene, Elk City, so we all kind of overlap, so we could get called and they could send us to take a patient to OKC, but our primary area is that 70 to 80 mile radius around Wichita Falls."
Call totals can add up quick, since the base can receive anywhere from a few to numerous calls a day.
"We do have some months that are a little bit busier than others, we don't see a big change in our call volume. It pretty much stays steady through out the year. B/ of the way our company is set up with our aircraft. Our aircraft overlap each other so we have sister bases that are in about a 70 to 100 mile radius of us here in Wichita falls. And so we overlap. Which means based upon our average call volume those bases are there as well. So if we are gone on a flight they pick up the flight and if they're gone on a flight we pick up the flight. So it balances out so we all have about the same number of calls per month and per year."
Air Evac also helps transfer patients into two major metropolises--Dallas/Fort Worth and Oklahoma City area, depending on where the patient is picked up.
"A typical flight would be to fly to Quanah pick up a heart attack patient and fly them back here to Wichita Falls United Regional. We made get another for a trauma patient to fly to parkland. That's the typical flights that we do."
The local base has been in Wichita Falls for seven years and still has many of its original crew members that can tell you the mark it's leaving on our community.
"It was a profound impact on the medical care in Wichita Falls and surrounding area because it provided a resource that we had access to. Prior to air Evac opening in Wichita Falls. The closest helicopter was in ft. Worth or Dallas of OKC. And so those aircraft were anywhere from an hour to two hours away. Now our aircraft is here in Wichita Falls. And for patients leaving Wichita Falls we are immediately available. And the way the company is set up we have backup in 20 to 40 minutes. So if we are gone and they get another call one of our aircraft is there within 20 to 40 min. To pick that patient up."
But where they really shine is how many lives are saved from scene flights; the Air Evac chopper allows them to cut the response time down by half.
"That was the whole mission and philosophy for the company when we started originally back in mo was to get those patients back into metropolitan medical facilities and do it as fast as possible. Ideally if your out in a rural area..and you have a small ambulance that picks you up they may have 30 to 40 minute drive to get you to a rural hospital where they can stabilize you and then you have another hour or two hour drive into a trauma center. Well having a helicopter here we cut that time on half."
There's no doubt this job is a calling and one not everyone is cut out for. But for this nurse, there is no where else he would rather be."
"I started as a military medic and then went to nursing school and ended up here in Wichita falls working in the ER and I have always specialized in emergency medicine and critical care and always dreamed of flying do the medical side. I worked as a paramedic for years so I enjoyed scene response and going to car wrecks and that sort of thing and look forward to doing it as a flight nurse.and when Air Evac was getting ready to move to Wichita Falls I looked into and got started and that was seven years ago."
"It does as far as nurses go we have a lot of responsibility as far as the patient care goes where we are allowed to make a lot of decisions that nurses working in a hospital environment would never think about making. We get a lot of education through the company and our director and they put a lot of faith in our ability to make basically medical decisions in a lot of circumstances. Based upon our protocol and guidelines that they give us as far as the patient care goes. That's very fulfilling to be able to make those decisions and see positive outcomes from the patient care. And the medics are the same way we operate under the same set of rules. Same protocol and guidelines and it fits the same for them as well."
As you can imagine, when your job is to primarily help those injured at trauma scenes, you see it all.
"Ones that have the biggest impact are the pediatric patients. We do a lot of pediatrics from this area especially trauma related that's the big thing. A lot of those patients we take directly into ft worth or cooks and we go into Dallas children's and those are the ones we can see the biggest impact on we see them when they are at the worst ,we see them after the car accident if we pick them up on scene or if we are transporting out of one of our hospitals and do what we do in air craft and deliver them safely and be able to get the feedback from them, a couple weeks later , hear and yea that patient you brought in got discharged 3 days later after you got here they did fine. And things you would not expect that you would have a positive outcome from, that you get that positive thing where they get to go home and get to do ok."
Because of privacy acts, they don't always get to hear the outcome but love it when patients make the effort to come back to them with results and appreciation. Making an extremely tough job that much more rewarding.
"The patient care and the impact we can have on peoples lives because we are there that's the biggest thing. That's why I have always been in emergency medicine is because you can see a positive impact normally in a very short period of time. When you work in patient care in a hospital as a nurse you see a patient for a couple of shifts and you come back and they may be discharged or gone on and you don't see big change in their outcome. When we see patient we get them at their absolute worst. On the brink of dying sometimes and we do what we do as far as our medical care goes and we do the best we can and we can see positive change immediately by what we are providing to the patient and the time we are with them for transport we can see changes in how they are doing and what their outcome is going to be.and that why we do it..because/ you see that positive impact just from being there."
Nurse : "Most people that are in ems whether it be nurses or medics, realize that we can't save everybody and it's sometimes very frustrating. Probably the hardest for most of us is when we are dealing with kids that are critical or kids that die because/ of car accidents and those type of things. We realize that we do the best we can and we beat ourselves up over it sometimes and we work closely with each other and we talk about it we talk to our medical director about it, especially when we have calls that bother us and you know I should've been able to do more I could've done more. And we work with our medical director and we have our regional educators that help us work through and talk through those things, and try to alleviate that stress and realize that you have done everything you can do, and that's all you can do someone else has a higher responsibility for that and it's in their hands and not in ours."
It may seem tight but this medical chopper is full of high tech equipment with room to carry the pilot, nurse, medic and a patient.
"This is our patient cot patient goes right here we have good access to upper part of patient airway parts we need more access to feet slide forward...stretcher will unlatch and we can load them back into aircraft."
Because once they are off the ground, this helicopter is truly is an ER in the air.
"We can't do lab work, and we can't do x rays but we can pretty much provide you with whatever else needs to be done in the air flying at 500 ft off ground at 110 mph."
To give us an inside look, these pros introduced our host to Bubba.
"This is a typical trauma patient--we picked this guy up; his name is Bubba. We picked him up at an accident scene he is on a backboard this is how we would load him in aircraft...we can just load him directly in...so he is fully loaded once we get in and he is securely loaded whoever is sitting in left had full access to his airway. All equipment is mounted....and ventilator..and are all accessible in front of us."
The crew also has a dedicated medical director on hand by radio for any assistance they may need, because Air Evac crews could have a one-month-old or a 90-year-old patient on board.
Something else unique about these caregivers in the sky is the time they spend with patients.
It could be anywhere from 30 min to a few hours depending on where they are going. Now although care is provided for one patient per flight, if several patients need to be transported, multiple aircraft are called in so all needs and patients are met.
New to the flight is night vision goggles--coverage isn't limited to daylight and as you can imagine, flying at night is a huge safety risk, so the company made a huge investment in night vision capabilities, training crew members and equipping aircraft with night vision goggles.
"It allows us to be able to see in the dark. There are still some obstacles that we can see we still don't see power lines till we are on top of them but we can see poles and a lot of things we used to not without goggles."