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Miles Randell was interviewing a nurse who was interested in joining TEAAM — or Technical Evacuation Advanced Aero Medical — when the non-profit response unit was called to perform its first rescue mission.
“I was just telling her we were brand new when we got our first call,” recalled Randell, TEAAM president and founder.
It was Oct. 19, 2018, a picture perfect fall morning in British Columbia’s Sea to Sky Corridor. Near Sloquet Hot Springs, a tree faller working in an isolated gully had just felled a large maple when a rotten 60-foot fir collapsed without warning, pinning him to the ground and inflicting severe back injuries.
After a few minutes, the faller managed to access his radio and call for help. A site supervisor responded, sending first aid attendants down to the injured man and dispatching a runner to Sloquet Logging Camp to call TEAAM.
Fortunately, the faller’s employer had signed up as a patron of Squamish, B.C.-based TEAAM just three weeks earlier. As a patron, the logging company pays $100 annually per high risk worker to qualify them for aeromedical evacuation, although rates vary depending on type of company and scope of employee work.
“It allows them to use TEAAM on their emergency response plan,” said Randell. “There is just one call to make.”
As an advanced life support aeromedical service, TEAAM responds to calls that are currently beyond the scope of the B.C. Ambulance Service (BCAS) or other rescue services. In collaboration with Blackcomb Helicopters, a helicopter with hoist and longline capability is dispatched — either an Airbus Helicopters EC-135 T2+ or an AS355 NP Twin Star if the former is unavailable.
It was the Twin Star that launched that October morning. On board were Blackcomb pilot Pat Fonseca with experienced paramedics Randell and John Willcox. Within 55 minutes of receiving the call for help, TEAAM arrived at the accident site.
Randell told Skies that the crew was already armed with details about the location, condition of the patient, ground radio frequency, overhead hazards and any special circumstances, such as whether a longline may be required.
“The client has a copy of our medevac request form in the field so they know what info we will be needing. That helps us determine what aircraft we need, and that allows us to launch our response.”
On approach, Fonseca raised the ground crew on the radio. They told him they were concerned about overhead snag hazards — in logging lingo, that means weak trees that could blow over or large broken branches in the overhead tree canopy that could come crashing down if disturbed by a helicopter’s rotor wash.
TEAAM elected to put down on a nearby forestry access road and Randell and Willcox hiked for about 10 minutes to reach the patient.
He was laying on his side, secured to a spine board and screaming in pain.
“The first aiders had done a really good job helping him,” said Randell. “When we arrived, we did a quick assessment. I started an IV, and John drew up the medications. He had a really good reaction to the different meds we gave him, and he was soon more comfortable.”
By the time Randell had packed up his jump kit, the loggers were already carrying the injured faller back to the waiting helicopter, securely immobilized in a vacuum spineboard, which moulds to the patient as air is sucked out of it.
“Once we got in the air, we had a chat with Jordan Lawrence, TEAAM vice-president and air ops co-ordinator for the mission. BCAS wanted us to meet them at Squamish airport. So we met a ground ambulance and an air ambulance there.”
The land vehicle arrived at Squamish first, so TEAAM handed the patient over to that crew, who in turn transferred him to the BCAS air ambulance crew, which then delivered him to the trauma centre at Vancouver General Hospital.
Randell said the faller’s injuries were significant. In the worst case scenario, he could have been paralyzed due to an internally unprotected spinal cord, complicated by bone shards that could inflict further damage if the patient had been jostled around too much.
“If he were to come out via the traditional extrication method, by land ambulance over those rough roads, it would be a 6.5-hour drive to the nearest clinic — and that’s not a trauma centre,” he pointed out. “At minimum, we cut 6.5 hours of transport time off his journey, and at maximum we cut 10 hours.”
Remarkably, the faller was walking within a few days. TEAAM’s first rescue mission could not have turned out any better.
No easy task
It’s been two years now since Randell and TEAAM vice-president Paul Windsor first had the idea to launch an aeromedical emergency response service that would fill the service gap in B.C.’s back country.
It hasn’t been easy.
At this point, TEAAM is primarily funded by industry, charity and private donations. Long-term, the organization hopes to have enough patrons to cover the cost of service. Currently, a bill is sent for each rescue.
Pilots are pulled from the Blackcomb Helicopters pilot pool, but aeromedical crewmembers are only paid when they respond to a call. Otherwise, TEAAM’s 34 staff members serve on a volunteer basis and hold down other jobs with B.C. Ambulance Service, Whistler/Blackcomb Ski Patrol, or various mountain guiding companies.
“Funding has been the biggest day-to-day challenge for sure since we officially launched in June 2018,” said Randell. “We have to be quite flexible with our funding model.”
But ever since TEAAM’s successful first mission, the tide has been turning.
“Industry itself is coming out in droves to help us now,” he said. “I just spent a week in Victoria at a logging industry convention, where I lost my voice because I was talking to so many people about it. The energy sector started us and the forestry sector has really made us happen financially.
“The smaller players in the forestry sector, the tree planters, they’ve basically taken up our cause and they are swinging hard to get us funded. Now the B.C. Forest Safety Council has come on board to lobby the provincial government for funding.”
The financial benefits of the TEAAM service are significant for the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), too. Randell pointed to Australian studies that show this type of aeromedical service can improve outcomes and save millions of dollars in post-accident patient treatment.
But aside from saving dollars, TEAAM’s main mission is to save lives.
“It’s not been an easy task to set this up, so to see this success made it all worthwhile,” concluded Randell.