Helicopter design flaws delay transfer of bases to Ontario air ambulance service

The Globe and Mail

An air ambulance helicopter lands at Toronto Island airport on Jan. 27, 2012. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Ontario’s air ambulance service will not assume responsibility for flight operations at the province’s two largest transport medicine bases next month, because of design problems with its helicopters that compromise the safety of patients.

Ron McKerlie, interim chief executive officer of Ornge, said on Friday that he is postponing the changeover, so that everyone can focus on resolving problems that place patients too close to the ceiling in the cabin.

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The Globe and Mail has reported that the Ontario Health Ministry is investigating whether the design flaws, which restrict paramedics from performing life-saving CPR, played a role in two deaths.

“This is our top priority,” Mr. McKerlie said in an interview. “It’s absolutely critical that we solve this problem.”

Ornge was to take over operating the province’s air ambulance base in Sudbury on Feb. 7 and in Toronto on Feb. 29. Ornge took over the other two bases in London and Ottawa earlier this month.

The four bases have been operated by Canadian Helicopters Ltd., the primary provider of air ambulance service in Ontario since the beginning of the program in 1977. But in October, 2010, Ornge notified Canadian Helicopter that it planned to terminate the contract, effective March 31, 2012, and take over the bases.

This has been a lucrative business for Canadian Helicopter and one of its cornerstone contracts. In 2010 alone, the company said the contract generated $34-million in revenue. It provides flight operations, maintenance and related support for Ornge’s helicopter fleet.

The McGuinty government created Ornge in 2006 to co-ordinate all aspects of the province’s air ambulance services. But the insiders of Ornge had ambitions to get into the business themselves of not just dispatching commercial air ambulance operators to accident scenes but of competing against these carriers.

Mr. McKerlie said he is also considering reversing the decision made by Ornge’s insiders to cancel the contract, which would also see the bases in London and Ottawa switched back to Canadian Helicopter’s control.

While Mr. McKerlie, deputy minister of government services, spends his days trying to resolve design problems with Ornge’s new helicopters, a team of forensic accountants from the Finance Ministry is poring over the books.

The publicly funded Ornge has set up a series of private for-profit entities and purchased its own fleet of airplanes and helicopters. Mr. McKerlie confirmed on Friday that Ornge purchased 12 helicopters from Italy’s AgustaWestland for $148-million. Ornge had previously disclosed that it bought 10 helicopters. Two of the helicopters have never been brought to Canada or outfitted as air ambulances, he said. They are up for sale in Pennsylvania.

“They were purchased with the idea of making quick cash,” he said.