Amid growing fear Manitoba will face serious spring flooding, the provincial government has already put the wheels in motion to hire an Alberta-based helicopter air ambulance to be stationed in southern Manitoba.
A Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) helicopter air ambulance was based in Winnipeg in 2009 when high flood water closed many roads.
It was dispatched to several emergency calls and was credited with saving at least two lives -- a success the province now wants to repeat by getting its own permanent helicopter air ambulance.
But Health Minister Theresa Oswald said Thursday the province's program won't be ready by April when flood waters are expected to hit.
"Our program is going to take some time to build, but we are going to have an interim solution for the spring in the dreadful event things are as bad as some are forecasting," she said.
Over the past month, Oswald said, her officials have been in contact with STARS to have one of their helicopters based here for as long as the flood threat lasts. The province announced it wanted to get its own helicopter air ambulance in last month's throne speech. Oswald said to do it successfully, officials have to structure emergency medical services around the helicopter. That includes building a landing pad at a city hospital, most likely the Health Sciences Centre, which is the province's main trauma centre.
"It's really not just a matter of buying an ambulance -- you have to build a whole program around it," she said. "In an ideal scenario, you also want to have a helipad that takes you right down into a trauma centre."
How the province will pay to put a helicopter in the air will be detailed in the provincial budget, likely to be presented in early April.
"We've had officials already doing some of the financial work about the cost-benefit of buying or leasing," Oswald said. "We're starting to come to some conclusions about that, but none that I can say right now."
However, the helicopter won't come cheap. The new Winnipeg Police Service Eurocopter EC120 Colibri helicopter, to be unveiled Monday, cost $3.5 million, with the province paying $1.3 million in annual operating costs.
A helicopter air ambulance has to be larger to carry patients and be staffed by two pilots, an advanced life-support paramedic and a nurse. One cost estimate for the helicopter alone is $5 million. The need for a contract helicopter air ambulance this spring comes as the province gears up for what officials say could be a flood equal or close to the 1997 Flood of the Century. Unprecedented rain during the summer and fall has saturated the ground in southern Manitoba and North Dakota, and with heavy snowfall so far this winter, it's feared the melting runoff will have nowhere to go. Many culverts are already frozen solid, with water compounding the problem.
Premier Greg Selinger discussed the potential for serious flooding with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at last Sunday's Grey Cup in Edmonton. Selinger has also spoken to Mayor Sam Katz about the threat and a review has now started to examine what the city can do over the next four months to prepare for a flood.
During question period Thursday, Selinger said much has been done to flood-proof the province since in the 1997 flood south of the city and more done to protect property, specifically north of Winnipeg, following the 2009 flood. The floodway has also been widened to handle a one-in-700-year flood.
Progressive Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen said the province should also examine bridge 200 at St. Mary's Road near the floodway inlet. In 2009, the fear was ice in the floodway could jam at the bridge and reduce the floodway's capacity by 75 per cent.
A real life-saver
An Alberta-based Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) helicopter air ambulance was stationed in southern Manitoba during the last serious spring flood in 2009.
It was credited with saving two lives:
April 9: Eight-year-old Samuel Gross slips into fast-moving water and is dragged into a culvert near the Westroc Hutterite colony. He's pulled out minutes later. Some members of the colony performed CPR, but can't get a response. The helicopter lands at the colony, 35 kilometres northwest of Portage la Prairie and flies the boy to Winnipeg. The helicopter is met by an ambulance at Winnipeg airport and Gross is taken to the Health Sciences Centre.
April 22: The helicopter lands at a highway crash near Plum Coulee. It flies then 21-year-old Amanda Siemens to Winnipeg in 18 minutes. The helicopter is met by an ambulance at Winnipeg airport and Siemens is taken to the Health Sciences Centre. A trip by a ground ambulance from the crash scene would take about two hours.
In the approximate six weeks the helicopter was stationed in Winnipeg, the Eurocopter BK-117 made more than two dozen emergency flights. The helicopter carries two pilots, an advanced life-support paramedic and a nurse. It has a 250-kilometre out-and-back radius without refuelling and can fly in cold weather down to -40 C.