The STARS Emergency Link Centre (ELC) at the Calgary base runs like a well-oiled machine today, connecting rural responders with physicians and our air medical crew.

This wasn’t always the case, however.

The idea to create a centralized call centre with trained communication specialists was borne out of the troubling challenge of trying to locate critically ill and injured patients.

“Back in the day in Alberta, each hospital had its own trauma line with no coordination amongst them,” recalls Ken King, chief medical office clinical lead and flight paramedic, who established the ELC in 1996. “In the span of a couple of months, there were three oil and gas industry fatalities, where emergency personnel had trouble finding the patients.”

Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) had funding available and approached STARS’ founder Dr. Greg Powell to help solve the issue.

“Industry was looking for a space where all the emergency response agencies could collaborate,” said King.

The ELC was set up as a place of coordination, where multiple phone lines could be answered and there would be access to the experts. Physicians at the rural hospital would have one number to call, eliminating confusion and delays.

In the beginning, it was staffed by off-duty air medical crew and administrators like Lynn Talbot, who has been with STARS for 23 years. Initially, the operation ran from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and went to 24 hours in less than a year. The Link Centre housed a few phones, maps of Alberta pinned to the wall, a nautical map plotter, a machine for recording calls and a logbook to enter missions by hand.

“It was definitely challenging to handle more than one call coming in, especially since we were pretty short-staffed in the early days,” said Talbot, aviation administrator. “We knew each of the individual ambulance zones by heart and had to have great map-reading skills. I came in one morning to find a colleague lying on the ground coloring a map. Everything was done manually.”

Today, it is staffed by up to ten communications specialists per day who facilitate every STARS mission (except in Manitoba) by connecting callers, conferencing in physicians, tracking the helicopter’s location and working with first responders to make sure there are secure landing zones for STARS to land at. The ELC also oversees online medical control calls for paramedics in ground and air ambulances. If they require medical approval from a physician to perform certain procedures, the ELC connects them with an on-call doctor.

Along with emergency dispatch and coordination, STARS started remote site registration in 1996 and work alone monitoring in 2010. When companies and individuals register their location with STARS, their information is on file in case of an emergency, making it easier for help to arrive.

King said it started with tracking 20 to 30 sites three years after the ELC launched, with pins on a map on the wall. King credits that the site registration program really took shape when Dan Knapp joined the organization in 2004. “I saw these pins on a map, and light bulbs of ideas started going off in my mind,” remembers Knapp, director for Industry Services. “There was so much potential to expand and reach more people.”

More than 4,500 industry sites are monitored by STARS every day, using a sophisticated electronic mapping system that monitors sites in real time. The map has coloured dots on it, signifying the kind of medical expertise available at a remote site. “Our neighbour-helping-neighbour program allows us to be aware of nearby sites that may have resources available to provide immediate medical support until first responders are able to arrive on scene”, said Knapp.

Today, with the advancement of geographic information system (GIS) mapping, satellite tracking maps and several other emerging technologies, the communication specialists at the ELC, fondly referred to as “Linkees”, are more equipped than ever to be there for the next patient.

“As much as we progress,” said Les Fisher, director for the ELC, “it’s all grounded in the historical roots of how the ELC started and is rooted in our physician oversight model. Even with all the technology in the world, we wouldn’t be able to provide that medical expertise and care without our ELC staff, doctors and skilled air medical crew.”