Updated 12/28/2009 11:27 AM
Sky Battle, Part 1 - Mercy Flight vs. Air 1
There is a silent air war above us as one medevac helicopter service accuses another of stealing calls. Mercy Flight Central of Canandaguia says the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department is bumping them from accident scenes for the sake of publicity. Joleene Des Rosiers investigates the accusation and the federal lawsuit that could prevent the Sheriff's Air-1 from transporting injured patients in their hour of need.
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ONONDAGA COUNTY, N.Y. - There is a silent air war above us as one medevac helicopter service accuses another of stealing calls. Mercy Flight Central of Canandaguia says the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department is bumping them from accident scenes for the sake of publicity. It's a lawsuit that could prevent the Sheriff's Air-1 from transporting injured patients in their hour of need.
Onondaga County Undersheriff Warren Darby recalls the first helicopter in Onondaga County.
"The helicopter has been in the area since '75. But it's been doing air medical kinds of things since 1980," he says.
Air-1 has been flying over Central New York for over 30 years. The first was one of three refurbished Korean War Vintage choppers, which took to the skies in the mid 70's to add critical support for police operations. It was upgraded in 1980 with the support of the county legislature. Today Air-1 does more than just police work.
It transports the injured to hospitals, assists with fire calls, "it looks for missing people. Pursuits. Police pursuits. You can't get away from a helicopter," Darby adds.
Meanwhile, down the road in Ontario County, Mercy Flight prepares for takeoff.
"We are a high level of care,' says Mercy Flight founder and CEO, Paul Hyland. "We're a dual care provider. When we go to the scene, they're getting the highest level of care that's available."
And herein lies the dispute. Hyland, owner and operator of Mercy Flight, a non-profit air medical services company, says the Onondaga County Air-1 chopper is jumping their calls.
"A lot of times they try to beat us to the scene. Which is again, unsafe and it's just plain unacceptable," he says.
Reporter: Why are they doing it, in your opinion?
"The only thing we can figure is it gives them a little higher profile and they can say that we're out there saving lives. And of course, that's going to help with their budget and so on."
It's no secret that Air-1 almost hit the chopping block when the Onondaga County legislature made drastic cuts to its latest budget. But it survived. And now the accusation the crew on board is bumping Mercy has undersheriff Warren Darby a bit steamed.
Darby is also the president of the Regional EMS council in Central New York which takes care of licensing and EMS services within a five county region, including Onondaga. Darby says the accusation of stealing calls is unfounded. Especially because he says the number of Air-1 patient transports pales in comparison to the number of Mercy Flight patient transports.
"The work that we do on air medical is a small percentage of the work that the helicopter does. 90 to 92 percent of the work is police work. There's some work in there that's rescue work. And fire department work, so maybe 2-3% of our work is going to be air medical, per se," says Darby.
There is a way to find out and that's by doing the math.
At the 911 dispatch center in Cortland County, a small corner is been designated to dispatching upwards of seven different helicopters throughout Central New York. It's known as the Clearing House. They say they track each and every helicopter that is dispatched for air medical services.
Their records show that in 2005, Mercy Flight was dispatched to almost half the calls over Central New York. Air-1 was dispatched to roughly five percent. In 2006, there are very similar stats. Mercy flight once again, was dispatched to almost half the calls over Central New York. Air-1 was dispatched to just under three percent. It's a similar story for '07, '08, and '09, where Mercy takes the cake over all other air services, including Air-1.
Mercy Flight's Hyland disputes those numbers, but he says regardless, there are other reasons he's suing Onondaga County.
"The undersheriff, Darby, he's basically said to me, that they're flying a paramedic doing police work! Well that's unacceptable," Hyland says. "Protocol doesn't allow civilians to be riding around doing homeland security and high speed chases for the state police or for themselves."
"We're doing it because somebody needs help and we've got the equipment and the personnel and the training to give them that help. And the sheriff says if we can do it, we're gonna do it," Darby says.
Mercy Flight filed the lawsuit against the sheriff's department in 2007, claiming violation of the Federal Aviation Act. Basically, claiming Air-1 is flying patients illegally in their publicly-owned helicopter. Mercy Flight attorneys cite a particular United States code, per the federal aviation administration, that has had various interpretations over the years.
In part two of Sky Battle, we'll delve into that code.
The New York State Police was also named in the Mercy Flight suit. They, too, use a helicopter for police work and medevac missions. However, the judge that originally heard the case in the Western District of New York dismissed the troopers from the suit. Mercy Flight has since submitted a motion to once again include the NY State Police as defendants.