We often say that STARS is there for patients on their very worst day.
But what if it’s also the coldest day?
With most of the prairies in a deep freeze, the winter chill presents not only another layer of risk for our aviation and medical crews, but also for the helicopters.
“We do a risk assessment on the whole picture before we accept a mission,” said Scott Young, vice president of aviation, adding that the chilly temperatures add another level of consideration before we take to the sky. “The absolute temperature our helicopter won’t be flying in is -40C. That is far too cold.”
We also consider whether the plummeting mercury would jeopardize our crews if we found ourselves in a situation that left us on the ground for a long time.
“Ultimately, however, it’s about the best interest of the patient and whether we can keep them warm enough inside the helicopter,” said Young.
For paramedic Greg Barton, keeping a critically ill or injured patient warm is paramount.
“There is a significantly increased risk that a trauma patient will die if they are also hypothermic,” said Barton.
STARS has a number of measures and mechanisms in place to keep patients as warm as possible including a “patient pack” which is an insulated bag, and a warming blanket which is a chemical blanket that automatically heats up when exposed to oxygen.
“We also use an electric IV warmer to keep the lines from freezing as well as to maintain patient warmth,” said Barton, adding that the medical interior of the helicopter is heated, much like in a vehicle.
Meanwhile, our crews dress in layers and use specialized winter wear to get them through the coldest days. Often, they spend time along rural highways while a patient is extricated from a trapped vehicle, or they may have to hike into remote, snowy areas or up or down mountains or ravines to reach a scene.
Our crew jackets, for instance, are made of a lightweight, waterproof, windproof material that will keep them warm even when the temperature drops to -50°C.
When STARS was still in the testing phase of the jackets, Young spent time in a freezer – with the mercury hovering around -50°C – wearing the outerwear.
“We needed to be sure about the technology so we did some field testing,” said Young. “I figured a freezer with a massive fan blowing cold air was a good proxy.”
Those are the bright orange winter coats you see our crews wearing today, the purchase of which were supported by a donor.
In no time, however, Jack Frost will move on and our crews will be prepared for a host of other weather challenges, including spring floods, summer storms and tornado watches.
For Barton, the wacky weather comes with the job.
“We are fully equipped and prepared to deal with all the elements, however at times our personal comfort takes a back seat to our patients,” said Barton. “Our focus is always providing the best care and transport – and we can do it in all seasons.”