By Martin Griff
The sights and sounds of a medical transport helicopter repeatedly flying over and landing on Steamboat Resort trails in northwestern Colorado last season brought concern to curious spectators and then relief when they learned it was a drill and not a real emergency.
Ski patrol members closed off designated trails before each whirlybird landing, while skiers and riders pulled out mobile phones to capture the unusual activity.
One of the patrollers on the scene explained that a primary component of the drill was crowd control. “If we don’t keep people away, some will ski right up to the rotating blades.”
The ski patrol drill was scheduled for seven days and the helicopter was able to land on four of them. It was unable to land on the other three days due to weather, according to Steamboat Resort spokeswoman Nicole Miller.
Steamboat Ski Patrol Director John Kohnke said they do the drills a couple of times during the winter as well as a couple of times during the summer to be prepared for biking and hiking rescues.
Ski Resort Helicopter Rescue: What It Costs and When It’s Used
Steamboat uses two helicopter services. “Classic Air Medical has a helicopter based at our local airport, and Flight for Life out of St. Anthony’s hospital in Denver has a helicopter based in Frisco,” Kohnke said.
The helicopter service provides a pilot, a flight nurse and a paramedic, according to Miller.
Helicopter transport is not just for injuries, Classic Air Medical spokesman Chad Bowdre explained. “It’s also for people who are extremely ill. Heart attacks, strokes – they need to get to a higher level of care in Denver as fast as possible.”
A patroller making small talk while riding up in Steamboat’s eight-passenger gondola said that if ski patrol takes an injured person down in a sled, the ride is free, but a trip on a helicopter could cost between $20,000 – $30,000.
“Those figures are accurate,” Bowdre said but added, “after the free ride down in a sled, if a patient needs to be moved by ambulance over the road to a hospital they will get a ground ambulance bill.”
“The medical system we have in the United States is very expensive. Flying aircraft is a very expensive endeavor and we have combined those two to make it an extremely expensive business.”
“Thirty to thirty-five thousand dollars is not unheard of. But they are not going to take someone in a ground ambulance from the bottom of the hill to Denver. It would take three hours and if you have that spinal cord injury or if you have that heart attack you can’t take that much time to transport. The helicopter is for life or death or life altering situations where it can vastly improve the outcome,” Bowdre explained.
“You break an ankle, or you fracture a femur, they can do surgery right in Steamboat where they have great orthopedic surgeons. There no reason to use a helicopter for transport.”
If a helicopter is needed, insurance may cover some or all of the cost. “One of the ways we can help mitigate that expense is with our membership program, and should they need a medically necessary flight they would have no out-of-pocket cost. “We would bill their insurance and whatever their insurance pays, we would consider that paid in full,” according to Bowdre.
“The membership program costs, $60 per year for an individual or $80 for a family plan. Insurance usually pays between 50 to 80 percent of the bill it all depends on the insurance company and their contracts,” Bowdre said.
Classic Air Medical serves resorts in the Rocky Mountain Region and the Desert Southwest. The membership program only applies if you are fully covered with a medical health Insurance policy
“If someone has a membership with another company, we would work with them on a case-by-case situation. We are a family run company and we want to do the right thing. We are not here to save somebody’s life only to take their life away from them financially,” Bowdre said.
Ski Patrol Drills Focus on Where the Helicopter Can Land
Steamboat spokeswoman Miller said the choice of transportation, whether by sled and ground ambulance or helicopter is not up to the patient. “We typically only call a helicopter for a life-threatening injury.”
“The patroller on scene works directly with the emergency room doctor at Yampa Valley Medical Center to determine whether a helicopter should be called,” Kohnke said.
This is the third year Steamboat has had helicopters available for rescue work but they are used “rarely, if at all, but we always want to be prepared,” Miller added.
The recent drills helped the patrol learn how to land the helicopter as well as how to communicate from the ground to the air. “We also learned, along with the pilot, the ability of the helicopter to land in different areas of the mountain,” Kohnke said.
Ski Patrol is responsible for getting the person in need to an area on the mountain where the helicopter can land since the helicopter operators do not have the option of dropping a rope down in the trees or on a steep trail and hoisting up an individual. Classic Air Medical’s Bowdre said the helicopter doesn’t need much space for a landing zone, just a 50-foot by 50-foot spot.
Representatives of both SnowSports Industries America and the National Ski Areas Association said their organizations do not keep track of the number of resorts using helicopters for medical transport, but Candace Horgan, Communications Director for the National Ski Patrol said helicopter transport is not part of the standard National Ski Patrol training. Instead, it is more a type of training done by local resorts as part of their scope of practice.
Martin Griff is living out his ski bum dreams this winter, traveling around North America, both North and South of the US/Canadian border. A journalist by education and profession he shares his thoughts, impressions, experiences and those things that puzzle him on Fridays.
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