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When seconds count

Steamboat-based air ambulance service logs close to 300 missions

Johnross Joseph Doyel flies the Steamboat-based air ambulance around Hahns Peak.
Courtesy photo

More than 19 months and nearly 300 missions later, the air ambulance service based out of Steamboat Springs has made a strong comeback.

It is a service that Steamboat resident Chris Arnis had hoped he would never need, but he is eternally grateful that Classic Air Medical was there March 15.

“They saved my life,” Arnis said.



At about 4:10 p.m., Chris Arnis, a former Division 1 ski racer, was coming down the right side of Rainbow trail at the Steamboat Ski Area when he approached an area rutted out by skiers through speed control fencing that had been pulled near the end of the day for grooming.

“It left a huge rut, and it was glazed over when I came down the hill, and I didn’t see it,” Arnis said.



Arnis said he hit the rut hard, and it knocked his ski off. He said he must have hit his head during the crash but he does not remember.

Ski patrollers quickly arrived to help Arnis, and they held his head. The call was made to have Arnis airlifted straight off the mountain.

Arnis said after the Classic flight crew landed, he was put in an air cast.

“I felt like I was going to be taken care of, and I was going to be OK,” Arnis said.

By 5 p.m., Arnis said he arrived at Denver Health Medical Center. He underwent surgery for a C-4 spinal cord injury and was later transferred to the Craig Hospital in Englewood for rehabilitation.

Between the crash and being flown to Denver, Arnis said he was completely immobilized and was grateful that he was not taken off the mountain on a sled.

“I got a lot of mobility back just because I didn’t get moved a lot,” Arnis said. “I just can’t thank them enough.”

Today, six months after the crash, Arnis is able to move both his arms, toes and fingers.

“It’s still a work in progress,” Arnis said.

Community need

Paula Golden knows how important it is to get patients the best medical treatment as fast as possible. In the medical field, it is known as the golden hour.

“During the first hour of care is when you’re going to have the greatest impact,” Golden said.

Golden is the Yampa Valley Medical Center Emergency Department Director and married to David Golden, who suffered a heart attack in 2012.

Golden said when the Flight For Life flight team arrived at YVMC to pick up her husband, he went into full cardiac arrest. David Golden was shocked, stabilized as best as possible and packaged for the flight to Loveland, where he was shocked another 25 times. Golden credits her husband’s survival to the air ambulance service.

“Even with that distance, we still save lives,” Golden said.

Before Classic opened for business at the Steamboat Springs Airport on March 1, 2014, Steamboat had been without a locally based ambulance for nearly 10 years.

During that 10-year void, YVMC mainly relied on Flight For Life based out of Summit County to transfer its most unstable patients. As a Level 4 trauma center, YVMC does not have the resources to treat severe head injuries, spinal injuries, serious heart conditions and multi-system traumas.

Golden said Classic is now YVMC’s first choice when they have to fly a patient.

“We are really blessed to have them within close proximity to us,” Golden said.

YVMC and emergency responders now have more choices and resources in the field, which recently was tested.

On Aug. 24, in two separate simultaneous calls, air ambulances were needed at the Steamboat Ski Area. A 55-year-old broke his neck mountain biking and a 40-year-old man had a seizure. Classic and Flight for Life each airlifted a patient from the mountain to Front Range hospitals.

Golden said transporting a patient to the Front Range by ambulance is a last resort. The three to four hour drive presents more risks, and it takes emergency responder resources away from the area.

Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue Chief Mel Stewart said his department has transferred patients to the Front Range before by ambulance, and the medical community in the past has discussed starting a service.

“We don’t have a lot of patients that we transfer out that don’t need to go in a rapid fashion,” Stewart said.

Although cheaper, it still costs the patient about $5,000.

Serving rural communities

Classic is a family-run business that started as a Bryce Canyon National Park helicopter tour company in Utah. The growth of medical evacuation operations was driven by demand in the area and officially started on Memorial Day 1988 as a seasonal service for the Lake Powell area.

Today, Classic has about 200 employees and is headquartered in Woods Cross, Utah, with nine bases in Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and New Mexico. This summer, they opened a fixed-wing base in Craig.

“We try to grow as we see a need somewhere,” Classic CEO Tony Henderson said.

Classic services small communities, with Steamboat and Los Alamos being their largest population bases.

“We like to find places that are underserved, and their wait times for critical care are real long,” Henderson said. “It’s amazing the amount of lives we save when we go into communities where they don’t have access to care faster.”

One of Classic’s larger missions is community involvement, said Chad Bowdre, a Steamboat resident, Routt County Search and Rescue member and former Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club coach. He is now in charge of Classic’s public relations and business development.

Classic is sponsoring the rubber ducky races in Steamboat and Craig and just recently attended North Routt Barbeque, benefiting the North Routt Community Charter School.

Steamboat’s base manager Lisa Connelly said working in rural communities has its advantages over big cities.

“You’ll never see your patients, and here you will,” Connelly said. “It’s nice that they remember us, and we remember them.”

Running an air ambulance service is not cheap. Just the helicopter equipped with all the medical equipment at the Steamboat Springs Airport costs about $3.5 million. The Steamboat base employs four medics and four paramedics, who work nine days each month with 72 hour shifts.

“It allows us a lot of free time to play,” flight nurse Anne Harris said.

Pilots work 12-hour shifts for 14 days and then have 14 days off.

The ongoing training of staff also adds to Classic’s costs.

Bowdre said Classic tried to keep its costs comparable to other air ambulance providers, and a medical evacuation from Steamboat to Denver can cost between $30,000 to $35,000. He said insured patients typically have to pay between 20 to 50 percent of that cost.

Classic does offer a membership program for people with insurance. For $60 a year, a household is covered for all out-of-pocket costs. Classic also offers group rates for companies and organizations wanting coverage for their employees.

Search and rescue tool

Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers consider Classic a valuable resource.

Classic affords Search and Rescue up to two, free hours of flight time for missions. After that, the Routt County Sheriff’s Office is billed for the flight time, and the agency can be reimbursed through a state search and rescue fund.

“That’s a huge benefit for Search and Rescue,” Search and Rescue member Jason Weber said.

Search and Rescue also utilizes Zephyr Helicopter Company based out of Steamboat for missions. Zephyr and Classic helicopters were used last week during the search for a missing hunter in North Routt County.

Weber has loaded the Classic helicopter twice for missions.

On one mission, Weber searched the roads and trails in the Big Red Park area from the air looking for a woman who got lost. After finding the woman, Weber directed a ground team to the woman.

“She was very grateful that we were out there looking for her,” Weber said.

On another mission, Search and Rescue used Classic to insert members and the coroner at Devil’s Causeway to retrieve a body.

“It saved us a good 15 hours of hiking and retrieving the person,” Weber said.

Search and Rescue also trains with Classic. Last summer, they rehearsed the best method for rescuing someone from the King Solomon Falls, where people have gotten seriously injured cliff jumping. Without a solid plan and the help of air support, it can take six or more hours to rescue someone from the remote area in North Routt County.

Recently, Classic trained with Search and Rescue at the old Stagecoach Ski Area. Following that exercise, Weber said Search and Rescue members got their air cards, which allows the members to load and unload the helicopter while the rotor is still spinning.

Inherent risks, striving for safety

Anne Harris understands the risks in working in the air ambulance business.

For the past 2 ½ years, Harris has been a flight nurse. Her husband, Dan, also works for Classic in Steamboat as a paramedic.

Before deciding to fly, Anne Harris said she asked her two daughters — now 12 and 9 years old — for permission.

“It’s a job that has a little more risk to it, and I wanted to make sure with both Dan and I flying,” Harris said.

The girls did not object.

“They think it’s cool that we work in this industry,” Harris said.

The Steamboat community is also aware of the risks associated with the air ambulance business.

This past January, community members gathered at Yampa Valley Medical Center to remember those who died 10 years ago in a Yampa Valley Air Ambulance crash.

On the night of Jan. 11, 2005, the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance plane was en route to Rawlins, Wyoming to transport a patient from the Rawlins Municipal Airport to Casper. The plane crashed on approach about three miles northeast of the airport. EMT Tim Baldwin was rescued after a multiple-hour search for the plane’s wreckage.

Pilot Tim Benway and flight nurses Dave Linner and Jennifer Wells died in the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined ice built up on the plane likely caused it to crash.

The crash investigation found insufficient evidence to indicate Benway was pressured into taking the flight, but investigators did not rule out the possibility that Benway put pressure on himself to take the mission.

Steamboat-based air ambulance service was discontinued soon after crash.

Classic has also experienced losses.

A midair collision on June 29, 2008, involving Guardian Air and Classic helicopters killed seven people.

The Classic helicopter was flying to Flagstaff Medical Center from the Grand Canyon. The crash occurred about ¼ mile from the airport.

The NTSB found poor communication between the pilots and dispatchers contributed to the crash.

Classic’s pilot, paramedic, flight nurse and patient died in the crash.

“It was a sad thing for both agencies,” said Henderson, whose father Mark Henderson started classic.

Henderson said after the crash, Classic equipped all its helicopters with equipment to detect other aircraft in the area.

Nationally, 2008 was the deadliest year for helicopter air ambulance service with five accidents that claimed 21 lives.

The Yampa Valley Air Ambulance accident was one of many EMS flight crashes studied by the NTSB. In 2006, the NTSB issued a special report that recommended the Federal Aviation Administration require EMS flight operators to develop and implement flight risk-evaluation programs. That and other recommendations were the result of a study of 55 air ambulance accidents between January 2002 and January 2005.

In 2014, the FAA implemented new rules to improve helicopter safety, affecting the 75 air ambulance companies that operate 1,515 helicopters in the United States.

According to the FAA, the new rule represented the most significant improvements to helicopter safety in decades and responded to government’s and industry’s concern over continued risk in helicopter operations.

“This is a landmark rule for helicopter safety,” United States Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said. “These improvements will better prepare pilots and better equip helicopters, ensuring a higher level of safety for passengers and crew.”

Among the rules was a requirement that all helicopter operators, including air ambulances, use stricter flying procedures in bad weather.

The FAA examined helicopter air ambulance accidents from 1991 through 2010 and determined 62 accidents that claimed 125 lives could have been mitigated by the new rules.

Classic touts itself as going beyond the mandated safety guidelines and is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems, an independent agency that audits air ambulance providers for industry-established standards.

“We have the highest standards for pilots,” Henderson said. “We have some of the highest standards in the area for nurses and paramedics too.”

If any single member of the Classic crew thinks it is unsafe to fly, they do not fly.

“Three to say ‘go,’ one to say ‘no,’” Bowdre said.

When a pilot gets a call from dispatch, they are simply told the origin, destination and the weight of the patient.

“They just choose, can I safely make this flight,” Bowdre said.

Pilots are not given information about the severity of the injuries, or perhaps if the call for service involves a child.

“You can’t have that added pressure,” Bowdre said.

Inside the Classic’s Steamboat Bell 407 helicopter, pilot Johnross Joseph Doyel demonstrated systems that warn him of dangerous terrain, threatening weather and other aircraft in the area. During night missions, the crew wears night vision goggles.

“Classic has been well ahead of the curve in implementing these technologies,” Doyel said.

Henderson said the maintenance performed on the Classic fleet is top notch.

“Safety is a huge part of our company, and we go above and beyond,” Henderson said.


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