Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Role of an Air Medical Crew Member in Aviation Accident Prevention...

 If there is only going to be one grownup on board, let it be you.

This post is adapted from the author's presentation at the Air Medical Transport Conference recently completed in Long Beach, California. 

Flying HEMS is a Team Effort…

On December 29, 2010, at 0223 eastern standard time, a Eurocopter BK117-C2, N854EC, ... was landed hard during an emergency landing at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station (Cunningham Field) (NKT), Cherry Point, North Carolina, after the pilot became partially incapacitated. 

A medical crewmember seated in the left front seat manipulated the collective control with the pilot's instructions and the pilot manipulated the cyclic control with his left hand. The pilot elected to make a run on landing and upon contact with the runway, the helicopter became airborne again, and then touched down again.  (NTSB)

Here is what happened...

The crew was in flight when the pilot's right arm dropped off the cyclic to his side. He explained to the nurse, sitting beside him, that he could not move it. He moved his left hand from the collective to the cyclic and manipulated the cyclic with his "wrong" hand. The nurse, who was experienced and accustomed to working under pressure - and who had never in her life touched a helicopter control - assured the pilot that they were going to work through this problem and live to fly another day. She agreed to move the collective control as they declared an emergency and asked Cherry Point tower for assistance. They were given directions to the airport, and emergency vehicles positioned themselves alongside the runway for the crash sure to follow.

The nurse realized the pilot was having a stroke, as evidenced by his loss of use of one arm, and his slurred speech. Only after the first attempt at landing, when the pilot was unable to see the runway and the several emergency vehicles lined up to assist, did she realize that the pilot's vision was also affected by his acute condition. A lesser person might have given up, or lost composure, but not this crew member. As the situation deteriorated, her resolve to work things out was strengthened. 

Her measure was being taken and she was measuring up.

As they flew down the runway on their second attempt at landing, she pushed down the collective without the benefit of muscle memory or practice. The aircraft bounced and became airborne. At this point the woman - who enjoyed flying on most days, but on this day had had her fill - again pushed the collective down - like she meant it...

The aircraft landed hard and slid to a stop. The tail boom drooped from the impact forces. No one was injured in the landing. The medical crew got out and began to administer care to the pilot...


We all hope that when our time comes, we will perform like this crew.

In truth, the likelihood of your pilot becoming incapacitated on any given HEMS flight is very small. As I knock on wood, I will say that pilots don't often slump over at the controls (notwithstanding the recent in-flight death of an airline pilot). 

What is much more likely to happen to your pilot is a human factors failure, and you - the crew - can positively influence the situation if are ready, willing, and able. Your job is to determine how to be a benefit without being a distraction; how to make things better not worse

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's consider your role on-board the helicopter. There are at least three parties to this argument, all with different ideas about the role of the medical personnel who climb in, strap in, and hopefully do not shut up. 

First there is what the government (FAA, NTSB) thinks. Then there is what the company leadership thinks. Finally, and most importantly, there is what YOU think. How you view your role will drive your attitude and actions. It is important that you understand what you should and should not do. Only with the help of pilots with the "right stuff" will your potential to increase safety be realized. 

Not all HEMS pilots have the right stuff. 

In the same way that your value as a resource can be developed by a pilot, the pilot's value to you can also be developed. It's all about how you manage the relationship. The manner in which you inquire, advocate, and assert determines how well you will work together as a team. How you say something is almost as important as what you say.

Not too long ago, the NTSB began to advocate that all legs of a HEMS patient transport be conducted under the rules pertaining to "the transport of persons or property for hire," Known as "part 135" of the federal aviation regulations (FARs) or "code of federal regulations" (CFRs), these rules contain limits on the number of hours that a pilot can be on duty. Certain operators wanted to be allowed to exceed 14 hours of duty (the limit per part 135 for single-pilot crews), and posited that the medical personnel on board were in fact, "crew members." The NTSB pushed back...

"Further, the Safety Board (NTSB) is aware that some certificate holders may train medical personnel to perform duties that loosely relate to the operation of the aircraft, such as looking outside the aircraft for possible obstructions or evaluating a landing site, so that these personnel are classified as flight crewmembers, which permits positioning flights to be operated under Part 91.15 
The Board does not consider the assignment of limited operational duties to medical personnel to provide a sufficient basis for operating under the less rigorous requirements of Part 91, which provides inadequate safety controls for the transport of these medical personnel passengers."

Without specific flight training (which medical personnel generally do not receive), medical personnel cannot be expected to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process to enhance flight safety or to significantly contribute to operational control of the flight. 

Therefore, regardless of any operational duties medical personnel may be assigned, they should be considered passengers on all EMS flights. 
The Safety Board concludes that the minimal contribution of medical personnel to the safe operation of EMS flights is not sufficient to justify operating EMS positioning flights under the less stringent Part 91 requirements.

(to our knowledge, not one NTSB board member has ever served on an EMS helicopter - in any capacity)

As the FAA, responding to pressure from Congress to "do something" about HEMS crashes, prepared to issue the "new HEMS rules," they referred to these NTSB remarks. In an FAA information-brief the FAA reiterated these comments, "as noted by the NTSB...." So the FAA thinks you are just a passenger too. 

It's funny how things can get taken out of context, how meaning and intention can be twisted, and how agendas can get hijacked. Remember that the NTSB's goal in all this was to protect medical personnel from over-zealous operators seeking to avoid time-duty limits.

The HEMS operators are of two minds about medical personnel status. The way they refer to you depends on if it will cost them money or make more of it.  Even you yourselves aren't sure about how you want to be considered. You aren't drug-tested or duty-limited; if you were crew in the FAA's eyes your days of 24 hour shifts would be over. Your life is on the line, just like mine every time we fly, so you rightfully should have a say in what happens - but some will waste no time in throwing the pilot under the bus if something goes wrong. 

Note: Dr. Ira Blumen, in his seminal research on EMS aircraft crashes, lists the medical crew as a contributing factor in a significant portion of mishaps : Either for knowing something was wrong and saying nothing, or not knowing something was wrong when they should have.

While the larger hospital-based programs tend to schedule medical staff for 12 hours, the community-based folks are overwhelmingly working 24 hour shifts. This reduces the required number of full-time-employees, and cuts costs for the operators. So in this regard the operators want you to NOT be flight crew. 

It's different when we talk about flying with night-vision-goggles. As the rotorcraft flight-manual supplement pertaining to NVG flight often includes a requirement for a "second crew member wearing goggles," the same manager who calls you a passenger, in the next breath calls you a crewmember. 

All of this is nothing but a rhetorical exercise except for one problem. And this problem affects you personally...

The drongo pilots flying HEMS have jumped on these NTSB and FAA statements as confirmation of their malformed attitudes about "medical passengers." The belief that we should "get the medical crew out of the cockpit" was given bona fides. 

Let's consider for a moment the way "crewmembers" are regarded in another segment of the helicopter industry. "Utility" involves using helicopters to build, patrol and repair powerlines, to move timber, etc.

"Noted wire strike prevention expert Robert Feerst is an adamant advocate of CRM in the wire environment. He points out that flight nurses and any other crewmember should be acting with the pilot as a team, and be thoroughly versed in procedures and inflight communications. 
Southern California Edison invests six months of training for its utility crews and pilots. The former are integrated into the flight activity and participate in decision making and planning on weather, fuel stops, winds, lighting condition, known hazards, how to mitigate the hazards, and how to call out clearings. Says Feerst, “Everybody has to be speaking the same language.”

Embrace or Exclude? Which will it be? It seems we are of two minds…

Don't Teach Management Bad Habits...

Aviation management derives opinions of medical personnel based upon their interactions and problems encountered. Most hospital-based programs involve a contract which has a stipulation that any pilot can be replaced at any time upon request of hospital management. Even a community-based operation's management may fire first and ask questions later when a pilot is being accused of wrong-doing by a medical crew. 

What has this brought about? When a medical crewmember uses safety as a weapon to cause a pilot grief or to have a pilot removed from his or her job - this causes problems and incurs unforeseen expenses for the company. It creates distrust in the minds of the aviation managers, and makes them want to keep medical personnel at arms-length. This wedge, formed at the highest levels of an organization, splits deep - all the way into your cabin at 3:00 am. It reduces your teams ability to work together, to make good choices, it increases the risk to your safety. 

Never use safety as a weapon. If you feel one of your peers is doing this - take them aside for some quiet counsel... You may save a life.

I asked a room full of HEMS senior leaders once about loading complete crews into a simulator and subjecting them to scenario-based flight training. One company's director of (aviation) operations said, "that's a good idea but we won't be doing that at my company. When we have done this in the past, and the pilot struggled through a procedure, the crew demanded his replacement..."

Friends - what that crew should have demanded was for training to continue until the pilot demonstrated proficiency - the same way we would handle a crewmember struggling through intubation. If you drive management into a corner and kick them in the mouth - they will never forget. This kind of thinking leads to wrong-headed philosophies...

Once there was an aviation program director who did not believe in the tenets of CRM or AMRM. On the aircraft he controlled, medical personnel were passengers - Period. They were not allowed to sit in the front of the aircraft. They were not allowed to assist the pilot with radio calls, GPS setup, navigation, or situational awareness. I am not sure how this gentleman came to see things the way he did, but I suspect it had to do with his prior-interactions with medical folks. His philosophy was undoubtedly part of the root cause of a sequence of events that ended up like this...

So, if you are a medical crewmember, I ask you to reach inside yourself and tap your inner excellence - it is still there and it's what you brought to the game in the beginning periods. Be a team player - even if your coach sucks or your coworker isn't. If there is only going to be one grownup on board, let it be you.

Learn as much about the aircraft as possible, whenever possible. Seek to understand your pilot first, then seek to be understood. Attempt to operate in all regards at the third level of situational awareness - projecting what will happen in the future based upon what is happening now. This keeps you alive...

Calm statements of fact. A supportive tone of voice. A genuine desire to be helpful. This is what AMRM is all about.  Remember, what happens in the quarters walks with you to the aircraft. You must be decent and respectful to each other all the time - not just when flying. Do your part to foster a culture of excellence at your base - starting with your participation at each shift's crew briefing. If you think your briefings are a waste of time, say so, then suggest how to make them better.

Set the tone. Turn off your phone.

Encourage the free flow of information between disciplines. Never forget that you may be the last line of defense against an accident. Asking questions is OK. Learning about your aircraft and aviation is fun!

Watch out for hazardous attitudes in yourself, and also in your team. Remember :

NO one is immune to these human factors.
We have to continuously monitor ourselves and each other.
Be willing to speak up. Even to a “friend.”
Machoism, Impulsivity, Get-home-itis, Invulnerability, Anti-authority, Resignation and Complacency can complement each other and lead to bad choices and bad outcomes. 

A flight nurse wrote on another blog post : 

An issue I have experienced is that we are like family and it is very painful at times to speak up. Speaking up has to happen and personal feelings need to be put aside. I suspect what makes HEMS such a great job is also our weakness. We are a tight group and speaking up can wreak havoc among the group dynamics. It shouldn't, and big picture; it is certainly better to feel uncomfortable than to feel nothing ever again. Be safe out there.

Remember that pilots are people too :

Pilot’s have a strong desire to complete a task.
Pilots derive satisfaction from getting the patient to the hospital, and the helicopter and crew back to the base.
The closer to the destination we are, the harder it is to stop. (Get-home-it is)

Regarding Inadvertent Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IIMC) otherwise known as flying into clouds, fog, or heavy rain... I don't think it's really "inadvertent" at all :

Most IIMC events occur as a result of pressing on into deteriorating conditions.
We do not have to fly to our absolute limit before someone on board says, “Hey, Stop”
An IIMC event means that all crewmembers on board failed to maintain situational awareness. 
Yes it’s my job as pilot. Yes you are there with me. You will share my fate.

You can make a difference

The FAA has changed designations for pilots.
Old: Pilot Flying versus Pilot Not Flying (PNF)
New: PF and PM, Pilot Monitoring
What is being monitored?
Who on board our aircraft is available to monitor my performance…
Inquiry, Advocacy, and Assertion can prevent bad outcomes.

If you sense that I am upset, or distracted, or doing something "different" from what is normal, speak up!

The pilot of this aircraft was upset and distracted. He thought he had forgotten to
put on his fuel cap and made a "hot" approach to check it. It was on.

Consider using "challenge and response" for your pre-takeoff confirmation checklists - this is that last little check we do before pulling up on the collective. This means that a medical crewmember calls out the things - one by one -  that if missed, will lead to disappointment or death (fuel transfer switches, hydraulic switches, engine control positions). You can add medical items like drugs or O2 - just keep it simple and short. This would be a big change from how most HEMS programs operate - but it can't hurt to ask. 

Finally, (if you are still here : thanks and good for you!)

Consider having a crewmember perform "fireguard" duty outside the aircraft during engine start. This would have prevented this...

This aircraft was puking oil and smoke on engine start. The crew was inside and didn't
know anything was wrong. A witness on the ground saw the smoke but did nothing.
Best Practices:

All crewmembers perform walk-around every time. A missed latch/cap/cowl equals a pizza from the pilot if he or she missed it. It's a bargain - believe me.
The last set of eyeballs to climb in checks doors, fuel cap, condition of aircraft. (Eyes in)
The last set of eyeballs checks surrounding environment for hazards, obstacles (Eyes out)
That crewmember announces state of aircraft, hazard situation, readiness for departure…

Hopefully, none of this offends or implies that I am smarter than any of you. I know about many of these things because I have made the mistakes myself. ( A Dauphin will hover on one motor - but not very well.) In a perfect world - harm will never, ever find you.


  1. Great article Dan. Amen to all of your excellent observations and valuable tips. Keep it up!

  2. Proud to know the earlier mentioned RN. That crew utilized great CRM to live to fight another day.

  3. Hey what a brilliant post I have come across and believe me I have been searching out for this similar kind of post for past a week and hardly came across this. Thank you very much and will look for more postings from you. Air Ambulance Services


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