When there’s a medical emergency within a roughly 100-mile radius of the Flathead Valley, the Kalispell Regional Healthcare ALERT crew is ready — now with a new $4 million helicopter.
Matthew Weller, a pilot with ALERT, walked around the Bell 407 GXP Monday afternoon, his hand running along the bright red helicopter. Outside the ALERT hanger just a few yards from the newly painted craft stood its predecessor, which shares the Bell 407 model but is in its 18th season.
“Not only does it go further, but it goes faster and more efficiently,” Weller said, looking over the new aircraft.
The nonprofit air ambulance serving Northwest Montana was created in 1975 and became the nation’s first rural hospital-based air ambulance. The current helicopter has flown roughly 6,500 hours. The new aircraft has roughly 29.5 hours — 16 of which Weller logged in his flight to deliver the air ambulance to Kalispell from Tennessee.
The updated craft has a few more weeks before it can take missions as the hospital works through federal and state requirements. Until then, ALERT, or Advanced Life-support and Emergency Rescue Team, is limited to its veteran helicopter, which was grounded 105 days last year for maintenance and repairs.
“It was, rent a helicopter for 60 days for $93,000 while you’re doing $200,000 worth of maintenance on the other one,” said Tagen Vine, president of the Kalispell Regional Healthcare Foundation.
Vine said it was already time for the hospital to upgrade. But new federal rules “made it urgent.”
He said the new requirements from the Federal Aviation Administration require helicopter air ambulances to operate with a terrain awareness and warning system. The guideline — announced in 2014 — went into effect in April.
The legacy ALERT helicopter meets the upcoming air ambulance regulations, but the helicopters the hospital leases from local industries when the ALERT helicopter is down do not.
Vine said a local benefactor who chose to remain anonymous fronted the $4 million to buy the new air ambulance. So far, the hospital has paid $2.1 million of that cost. Roughly $200,000 of that came from the 2017 ALERT banquet and $1.1 million came from fundraiser savings over recent years. Hospital employees and members of various hospital boards raised another $800,000 for the project.
Vine said the hospital hopes to have donation commitments to pay the loaner back by the end of the year, whether that money is provided upfront or through a multi-year pledge.
Bob Sandman, chair of the ALERT Advisory Board, said the hospital is “acting on a leap of faith backed up by 40 years of community support for this program.”
He said the nonprofit is unique in that it can be the first to respond to the scene of an emergency call. He said the crew also picks up patients wherever they need help, even along backcountry roads.
“The community has shown it values this life-saving service,” he said.
WELLER LEANED into the cockpit of his new office Monday afternoon. In the upgraded model, the engine and flight instruments are integrated on two large LCD displays within the pilot’s reach. He then walked toward the legacy helicopter and pointed to steam gages scattered throughout its flight desk system.
“From the outside it may be difficult, but it’s pretty easy to spot which one is newer with a look here,” Weller said as he nodded toward the controls.
The new aircraft includes autopilot to help reduce pilot fatigue and workload. It also features updated traffic and terrain avoidance systems, a moving map display and a synthetic vision to reveal the terrain of the land below.
“Day, night, clouds — it doesn’t matter, that information is always there,” Weller said. “It all helps improve our situational awareness.”
Along the helicopter’s tail are the letters “VS” in memory of the hospital’s former Chief Executive Officer Velinda Stevens, who died from cancer earlier this year.
“We’re probably most proud of that detail,” Weller said with a grin. “A little piece of her flies with us every day.”
He said other than standing in for the new craft when it’s undergoing maintenance, the legacy air ambulance will be used for training as well as promotional events.
Weller said the ALERT crew can reach patients in Libby to the west in less than 30 minutes. He said his best flight east to Browning was completed in 23 minutes. The crew also make trips to Polson, Ronan and occasionally places like Cut Bank and Missoula when there’s a need.
“We have a lot of people out in remote, rural areas. And this is the best way to get to them,” Weller said.
For more information or to donate to the ALERT program, visit www.krh.org/foundation or contact Tagen Vine at 406-751-6767.
Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.