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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pitfalls of Applying Part 135 to EMS Operations

By Lee Benson

Rep. John Salazar (D-CO) introduced the Air Medical Safety Act, HR 1201, to the U.S. Congress on Feb. 25, 2009. The bill requires, in part, "a pilot of an aircraft providing emergency medical services, whenever there is a crew on board, regardless of whether there is a patient on board, to comply with federal safety operating requirements governing commuter and on demand operations."

At a minimum, this will require a public safety operator involved in EMS flights to acquire a Part 135 certificate and conduct all operations in accordance with this certificate. Some public operators might feel that certain terms and definitions in the Pressler Act, Public Law 103-411, would exempt public safety operators from these requirements.

In speaking with several people about this, the one common stance was that each law would stand on its own as written. Terms such as search and rescue are meaningless under this bill, and therefore operators should read the section quoted above just as it is stated.

Remember, this is a legislative bill, not a rule generated by the FAA through its normal process. I think those of us that suffered through the first years of the Pressler Act will agree that the most difficult part of the process was the interpretation of what the act meant, because it is not written in FAA-speak.

This law is an equal opportunity disaster waiting to happen. It is harmful to public safety operators, the taxpaying citizens that support them and private EMS providers alike. The public safety operators will be adversely affected in a number of ways. The bill will disallow the use of non-certificated aircraft for the EMS mission. For supporters of this view, I will point to the Ventura County and Los Angeles County Fire and Sheriff’s Departments, and ask them to query the thousands of victims that have been saved by these operations with their Bell UH1s, Sikorsky S70s and Sikorsky H3s to see what they think. None of these aircraft are standard airworthiness certificated aircraft, but I would put my family in any one of them.

The next issue is hoist missions. How do you conduct a hoist mission under Part 135? Before starting down the path of "that’s a Part 133 operation," go back and read exactly what the bill says. Then realize even if you were to convince the FAA that Part 133 applied, remember that Part 133 D requires single-engine flyaway capability at the weight and altitude that the mission will be performed. Lots of hoist missions are completed in this country with single-engine helicopters. The hoist missions accomplished in twins are rarely done in conditions that allow a single-engine flyaway. In reality, the second engine just expands the number of places that the helicopter will land in, probably none of them good.

Before getting the impression that I have a less-than-professional attitude about the inherent risks involved in hoist operations, I’d like to relay that I have performed hundreds of hoists in single-engine helicopters and many more in twins.

You are at less risk in a hoist mission in a single-engine helicopter than in a twin that does not have flyaway capability. Furthermore, the chances of suffering an engine failure while conducting a hoist mission approach the figure of merit that the FAA used to evaluate extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards (ETOPS) over the Atlantic Ocean when two-engine airliners were first proposed for Atlantic routes.

In my opinion, the private EMS operators should look at this law and immediately support a public aircraft exemption from this bill. The reason is simple. Why would you want to force the public safety operators into a position that requires them to become Part 135 certified and, by doing so, allow them to directly compete with you? I do not believe it is appropriate for public aircraft operators to directly compete with private companies.

That said, on several occasions in my past position, the only way that I could convince my overhead that we could not do a particular mission was to point out our lack of a Part 135 certificate. The missions in question were absolutely appropriate for private operators. What do I say when the Part 135 certificate is hanging on the wall?

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