This story comes as a follow up to our Critical Condition series that investigated gaps in pre-hospital care in rural B.C. We will have more stories on the future of care as reaction and policy discussions emerge.
Dunc Wassick believes the West Kootenay deserves a dedicated helicopter air ambulance and he is using his business, Dam Helicopters, to try and do something about it.
Based in Castlegar, the company specializes in EMS/Heli-rescue, forestry, mining, hydro power, wildlife management and tourism flight supports.
But if you rewind about nine years Wassick was making several flights each week transporting the local emergency health services Critical Care Team and patients to and from accident scenes and hospitals.
After a few years of operation, the local Critical Care Team was discontinued and British Columbia Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) began to use a helicopter stationed in Kamloops for air ambulance flights in the area.
“The whole community is suffering over this,” said Wassick. “I don’t think people realize the lack of response that there is in this area. We really need to get that level back again.”
British Columbia Emergency Health Services (BCEHS) reported that it did not send a helicopter air ambulance to Castlegar at all last year and that a helicopter was sent to Nelson just three times and to Trail — where a helipad has been built at the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital — only five times.
A fixed-wing air ambulance (airplane) was sent to Castlegar 42 times, Nelson 18 times and Trail 73 times in 2017.
Dam Helicopters transports search and rescue teams and has the capabilities for long-line rescues.
They have purchased two fully equipped medical/rescue-configured helicopters. The twin-engine helicopters have the capacity to transport two patients and a medical attendant and are equipped with oxygen tanks and suction capabilities. They are also configured for higher altitude flights.
“It’s a very capable aircraft,” said Wassick, “Ideally, a good machine to have for that area.”
Wassick isn’t sure at this point just how his dream is going to come to pass but he believes he can operate an air ambulance helicopter seven days a week during daylight hours for a fraction of the price that BCEHS would pay to set one up in the area. BCEHS does not have any plans to enhance helicopter services in the area.
The company handles the maintenance of its own aircraft and also works on third-party machines. Dam Aerospace AMO 85-10 is a Transport Canada Approved Maintenance Organization. Wassick’s son Mac Wassick is the director of maintenance.
“We’ve got spare engines, we’ve got altimeters, we’ve got instruments, we’ve got spare everything,” said Wassick with a smile, looking around a hangar filled with parts. “We are really in good shape in a lot of ways.”
Dunc and Mac are working hard on getting everything in their new air ambulances in tip-top shape including new logos showcasing Dam Helicopters — The Pulse of the Kootenays.
Wassick envisions using the helicopters to respond to a variety of emergency situations including industrial accidents, logging accidents and even private transport for medical reasons.
“Each community should have this. There should be one in Cranbrook, one in the Kootenays here that could cover up to Trout Lake and down to the border and into Grand Forks to Creston. One for Revelstoke to circle that area,” said Wassick.
“It would only make sense — and they could do it quite reasonably,” said Wassick. “This is something we can afford.”
Wassick thinks that we should not let the fact that a full-scale helicopter rescue ambulance program may be out of the reach of our area stop us from having any program at all.
“It’s like saying, ‘I have to have a Cadillac, or else I am not going to drive in a car — so what are we doing — we are walking. But, you know what, I can afford a Chevy Pickup — so I think I could live with that.”
“Let’s get it down to reality and what we can afford and what can the community support. Maybe we start a program like this, and we run it for five years and then people say, ‘Hey let’s put more funding into this — let’s get the Cadillac.’”
Wassick doesn’t want to conflict with the current air ambulance service, however.
“We want to support and work with them,” he explained. “And when that isn’t available when that can’t happen for whatever reason — logistics, communication — we can come in on the private side to help.”
“To back up air ambulance, not to take over. But if they are not available, and can’t respond — then there is another option.”
Wassick says the community has been good to him, he’s making a living here and he just wants to try to do something to give back. That’s why he is repairing, insuring and having the helicopters ready and on stand by all without any guarantees of payment.
“I’m going on a limb doing it — but we’ll see what happens.”