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Pilot Marc McGee checks over the aircraft at Phoenix Heli-Flight, at the Fort McMurray airport, August 9th, 2015. The lack of a helipad at the hospital in Fort McMurray means longer travel times for patients on medevac flights.Ian Willms

The emergency call came in around 6 a.m. A vehicle had veered off Highway 881, rolling several times before coming to a stop near the northern Alberta hamlet of Janvier.

The 19-year-old driver was thrown out of the vehicle and severely hurt. An air ambulance was called to take him to Fort McMurray's only hospital – or at least part of the way. The hospital has no helipad, which means critically ill and wounded patients have to endure landing at the airport and being loaded into a ground ambulance for a roughly 20-minute ride to the hospital.

In this case, the two paramedics with the patient felt he might not survive the ride, and they asked the pilots to instead land at Fire Hall No. 1, about eight blocks from the hospital. The fire hall isn't certified for landings, but the paramedics concluded the shaved minutes could make the difference between life and death.

"They don't do it just to do it. It's outside the norm," said Paul Spring, president of Phoenix Heli-Flight, which supplies the air-ambulance service.

The hope is that such harrowing journeys may one day come to an end. After years of lobbying by doctors, emergency workers and other local players, the provincial government announced last year it had committed $5.5-million to building a new helipad at the Fort McMurray hospital.

Then-premier Jim Prentice trumpeted the funding during a visit to the oil-sands capital last October, noting the helipad will save precious transport time for patients in a vast, thickly wooded region where many people work far from Fort McMurray. The government also pledged to start and finish construction this year, but the project has been mired in delays. It is stuck in the design phase, the original budget is under review and a completion date has been pushed back to late next year.

"We're still actually looking at the design options and the funding options right now," said David Matear, senior operating officer with Fort McMurray's hospital known as the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.

The helipad is supposed to be located on the hospital's roof. Previously, air ambulances landed in the health facility's parking lot, but Transport Canada closed that landing pad in 2007 because it didn't meet federal standards.

Placing the helipad on the roof is posing challenges.

"It was a challenge from the start because the building was not built to have a heliport on the roof," Mr. Matear said, noting part of the building may need to be reinforced to support the landing pad. "We have to go through the design of how can we accommodate that."

The Fort McMurray hospital services a population of about 125,000, a new count determined in preliminary results of the 2015 municipal census. That tally includes the Wood Buffalo region's urban, rural and shadow population – people who work in the oil sands but have a permanent address elsewhere.

By area, the municipality is one of the largest in North America, covering 68,454 square kilometres. The Fort McMurray hospital is a busy one, accommodating a baby boom, a long-term care centre and 56,445 visits to its emergency department in the 2013 fiscal year. It is the only trauma centre for about 500 kilometres.

Brian Dufresne, a senior emergency physician, has voiced concerns about the hospital's lack of a helipad and is frustrated by delays in its completion.

Dr. Dufresne hadn't been told of the delay until The Globe and Mail contacted him in July. After The Globe began asking questions, Alberta Health Services issued a news release advising the community of the delay on Aug. 6.

Dr. Dufresne believes improving emergency care in Fort McMurray – which has seen billions of dollars invested in the oil sands – should be a greater provincial priority. The additional transport time can negatively affect some patients, particularly those suffering with strokes and major trauma.

"I don't think that anybody would argue that those extra 20 minutes are causing an increase in morbidity," Dr. Dufresne said.

Some medevaced patients have died en route to the hospital from the airport, Dr. Dufresne and emergency-transport officials say.

How many is unclear. Alberta Health Services doesn't keep statistics on how many people die during emergency transport, spokeswoman Kirsten Goruk said.

It's hard to know for sure whether faster transport to the emergency department would have saved their lives. Gordon Bates, interim executive director for provincial air-ambulance operations, notes patients are receiving care in the ground ambulance. He added the helipad is "something that everybody is looking forward to having in place."

At Phoenix Heli-Flight at the Fort McMurray airport, the air ambulance is back in the hangar after responding to the rollover on Highway 881. The company's president, Mr. Spring, has been one of the community's strongest advocates for a hospital helipad. His helicopters have been transporting critically ill and wounded patients in the region for more than two decades.

The company unveiled a new $6.5-million helicopter with night-vision capabilities in 2014. With the high-tech, twin-engine aircraft, Phoenix is able to respond to more emergency calls.

It also now provides air-ambulance service 24 hours a day. Previously, emergency flights in darkness weren't possible, meaning some patients requiring urgent care in remote work camps and communities spent hours waiting and then travelling in a ground ambulance.

Phoenix, which is contracted by the Fort McMurray fire department, airlifted about 100 patients last year, compared with 40 to 60 in previous years. With the economic downturn, the need for medevacs has dropped this year. There are fewer people working in the region and fewer cars and trucks on the roads.

It costs $3-million annually to operate the emergency aircraft. Mr. Spring hopes a fixed agreement can be reached that would see the province, municipality and the energy industry contribute $1-million each yearly. Right now, Phoenix receives fee-for-service payment from the province, funding from Wood Buffalo and donations from the industry.

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