Arizona counties struggle to find emergency helicopters


Recent changes to the dispatch system in Santa Cruz County has local emergency responders worried that an evacuation may take more time than their patients have.

In January, several Southeastern Arizona counties were forced to change their helicopter evacuation process after Tucson Fire Department ceased its longstanding intermediary program. For decades TFD, through a program called Tucson MEDS, took responsibility for finding and calling in the nearest private medical helicopter for the smaller southeastern counties.

For various reasons, including their unwillingness to be dragged into legal battles between the counties and the private companies, TFD stopped providing that service this year. The Southeastern counties were notified of the change in October of 2014 and have been trying out alternate systems ever since.

Capt. Barrett Baker of the Tucson Fire Department, said that while finding a new system may be tricky, the hope is that air time will actually be shortened. “The dispatch jurisdiction in that particular county will be smaller, and have better information to pick the right helicopter,” he said.

However Santa Cruz emergency responders are having a hard time finding a working solution, and time is as always the most pivotal factor.

“When you need a helicopter you’re in a very time dependent situation, you’re in a high level emergency and you need fast responses,” said Ray Sayre, the director of emergency management for Santa Cruz County.

With only one person on dispatch for Santa Cruz listening to five police frequencies and three to four fire channels, as well as responding to incoming 911 calls, searching for the nearest helicopter has left them scrambling. After several meetings the current system was initiated. While on location the responder will call in to dispatch to request a helicopter, and then dispatch will ask them which of the locally operated helicopter companies, LifeNet, LifeLine, or AirEvac, they want them to call.

“Dispatchers don’t have the time to be constantly tracking the helicopters. So we have to call in knowing which company they should call. But sometimes we just don’t have all the information,” said Tubac Fire Chief Kevin Keeley.

Keeley’s own district just got a LifeNet helicopter stationed at Tubac Fire Station 3. But with just three helicopters operating in the whole county, he said that the current system isn’t reliable. Emergency responders have to find the nearest helicopter themselves, but are often times in areas where the ability to use the online Emergency Management, or EM, system to look up available choppers isn’t possible.

“The new system we have, it isn’t dynamic,” said Sayre, “If there’s a helicopter flying over head we’re not going to catch it when we need it.”

Emergency responders on the ground don’t have access to communicate with choppers that are already out in the field. They have to call the local dispatcher, who then calls the requested company, who then looks to see if they have an available chopper. If that company doesn’t have an available team the dispatcher has to call the next company on the list and go through the same process.

Chief Keeley expressed concern that this runaround may considerably lengthen the time it takes to get a chopper out. Keeley said that if it takes 10-15 minutes just to find a working chopper they may as well have not called and just driven out. The numbers aren’t in yet on how the process has effected arrival times, but the responders are definitely noticing the effect on coordination.

There’s no easy solution, but currently the county has been in talks with all three helicopter companies in hopes of creating a new system where the private dispatchers themselves would take responsibility for finding the nearest chopper.

“We want to be able to call one number and have one of the helicopter companies find and dispatch the nearest chopper, whether it’s from them or not,” said Keeley.

Handing the responsibility of dispatch to for-profit companies has led to a large contention between the various fire departments and emergency responders in the county, Keeley said. But their first responsibility is always to the patient, and placing the responsibility into private hands seems like the only viable option to cut down on dispatch time.

The struggle to find a new working system is still ongoing, but they’ll keep meeting until they can figure out a system, and are sure that everybody is on the same page, said Keeley.

“The biggest piece is that we have to get everybody to agree to be accountable,” said Keeley, “We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.”

Mary Rinker is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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