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Dangerous shortage of rescue helicopters

COMMENT PRINT ARTICLE
PHOTO: Küllike Rooväli

This Tuesday and Wednesday there were no helicopters in readiness in Estonia to rescue people in peril at sea or to fly critically ill patients to hospital. The Police and Border Guard Board, which is constantly maneuvering between technical maintenance periods with its three helicopters, believe that the purchase of yet another aircraft would help avoiding such situations.

For example, the cruise ship Seven Seas Explorer steaming in Estonian waters sent a distress call last week, calling for a helicopter to transport a sick person to hospital. The Police and Border Guard Board air wing helicopter should have responded to the call to fly the patient to an Estonian hospital. But it was impossible to do it and Estonia had to appeal to the Finnish Border Guard, which sent its helicopter and saved the patient’s life.

This was not the first time when all three of Estonia’s rescue helicopters are down for maintenance or performing other missions. One of the most embarrassing moments of our helicopter operations was in 2011, when the fishing vessel Baltic ran aground only a couple of dozen meters from the coast of Pakri Peninsula. Since the weather was bad and the accident happened near the high cliff, a helicopter was urgently needed to rescue the crewmen. Then, again, no helicopter was available and the Finns had to help.

A similar situation happened on two days this week, when the air wing could not respond as two helicopters were undergoing regular maintenance and the third one was down with malfunction. That meant that critically ill people on Estonia’s islands would have been transported to the mainland by ship, which would have significantly extended the time of transport.

“Unfortunately we cannot carry out rescue or medical flights these days”, admitted Priit Pärkna, deputy director general of the Police and Border Guard Board, and added that there have been less than one hundred hours without helicopter availability during the past six years. Yet the situation is complicated even when a single helicopter is in service, since the need for its services is significantly greater than the capability of the one aircraft.

Although the most important mission of the air wing is saving lives, it has a number of other missions as well. For example, search and rescue (SAR) of NATO pilots on air police mission. This means that if they should eject from their fighters for some reason, the Police and Border Guard Board has to send its helicopters to find the crew.

If SAR missions cannot be carried out, the pilots have the right to refuse to fly. So far we have been helped by Finland and Latvia, who have been notified in advance of the situation.

Helicopters are also needed for the police K-squad special unit, both for training and real emergencies. The peculiarity of such missions is that they require two helicopters – the entire unit does not fit in a single aircraft. The air wing has made significantly fewer flights than required. “We are now meeting the Ministry of Social Affairs needs on account of our own requirements”, said Kalmer Sütt, head of the air wing.

Border patrol flights are also necessary; in fact, that is the purpose the third helicopter was purchased for. The Environmental Board is also interested in aerial surveillance capability.

According to Pärkna, the situation could be improved by the purchase of another helicopter, which would require two air crews and technicians to check the aircraft every day. “We see that it we had four helicopters and crews, we could keep two helicopters available around the clock”, Pärkna explained.

But the additional helicopter does not come cheap. Pärkna estimates that it would cost approximately 22 million euros plus further 800,000 – the annual cost of the personnel. “Obviously, Estonia is not rich enough to purchase a single-purpose helicopter. The ministries should cooperate here and find the capability together”, said Pärkna, who reminded that the air wing would definitely be able to handle it.

While within the Ministry of the Interior jurisdiction the Police and Border Guard Board is itself interested in obtaining the fourth helicopter, the greatest need for airlift within the Ministry of Social Affairs purview concerns the hospitals. Andrus Remmelgas, chief physician and board member of the North Estonian Regional Hospital, says that a medical rescue helicopter should be available around the clock.

“The actual need for this service is already much more urgent, since many patients currently transported in ambulances would receive the help they need much sooner if flown in a helicopter”, Remmelgas said. “Time is of essence for the patient’s survival, prevention of complications and recovery”, he added.

Remmelgas said that in the absence of helicopters, patients have been transported from islands by ferries and boats. “For example, thanks to the shipping firm we could use the Hiiumaa-mainland ferry at night”, he recalled a critical incident.

All involved parties admit that an extra helicopter would be useful, but this need not make the funding available. “The Ministry of Social Affairs believes that a constantly available and quickly responding helicopter service is necessary for the security of Estonia’s residents and the Police and Border Guard Board must be able to ensure its consistency and availability”, said Agris Koppel, head of the ministry department for the development of health care system.

According to Kristin Rammus, communication advisor of the Ministry of the Interior, the funding application for a helicopter necessary for medical flights should come from the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Police and Border Guard Board would organize its operation. “It is too early to speculate whether the necessary spending would be found  in the near future and from which budget”, Rammus said, adding that the need for air transport is being studied in cooperation with other ministries so as to draft a memorandum to the government for the possible purchase of a fourth helicopter.

Frequency and duration of maintenance of Agusta Westland 139 helicopter

Number of flight hours until maintenance

Duration of maintenance

25

3-4 hours

50

1 day

100

3–5 days

300/1 year

6–8 weeks

600/2 years

7–9 weeks

1,200/4 years

up to 6–7 months

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