Winter weather concerns for medical helicopters - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Winter weather concerns for medical helicopters

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The weather is a big concern among local emergency responders. Snowy or icy roads can slow them way down in the rush to save someone's life.

One way to bypass dangerous roads and get there quicker is by air, but local Life Force pilots tell Channel 3 they've already have several instances this winter where snow and ice made it too dangerous for them to fly.    

Erlanger's Life Force say they've been getting calls all day from the counties they serve asking if they'll be flying today or not. It's up to the pilots to make the decision on each individual call-- taking into consideration, the direction, temperatures, snow and ice.

During the last winter storm two weeks ago, they were grounded until the evening time. Once it was safe to fly, they say they got to patients in half the time it would've taken ambulances slowed by icy roads.

"Having flown out of here for 25 years, I've gotten an understanding of the weather patterns and how quickly they can change," Erlanger Life Force Pilot & Base Manager Brad Simmons said.

Life Force Pilot and Base Manager Brad Simmons is constantly tracking flying conditions with high-tech software.

Each time someone needs help, the pilot makes the call whether it's safe to fly.

"We just have to stay on our toes and see what's happening hour by hour," Simmons said.

Twice Monday, Simmons ruled it unsafe. One was toward Atlanta and the other from Pikeville to Knoxville.  

"Low visibility, cloud on the plateau and icing conditions made it a no go," Simmons said.

Snow makes ambulances drive slower but Life Force's medical choppers can fly in some snow, however, visibility isn't the only issue.

"If it's icing at altitude, we get up into the clouds or where there's a lot of moisture and ice starts to build up on the helicopter, we can't fly in those conditions," Erlanger Life Force Administrator Robbie Tester said.

"You know if it's 30-31 degrees on Signal Mountain, well I still have to be above 1,000 feet of Signal Mountain so I'm going to be in the 20's when I'm trying to get across Signal, so I got to take all that into account," Simmons said.

In emergency situations, minutes can mean the difference between life and death, so if the pilot rules it safe to fly, a critical care paramedic, nurse and equipment are always on board.

"We carry four units of O Negative blood, we do a lot of surgical procedures, we're basically bringing the hospital to the patient," Tester said.

If the Life Force helicopter is grounded for safety reasons, they do have four-wheel drive vehicles available to assist EMS crews on the roads.

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