If you live in the Columbia River Gorge and beyond, your chances of surviving a severe health crisis just got better.
LifeFlight, the Portland-based air ambulance service, announced plans last week to expand its operations to Dallesport.
That means LifeFlight will station a helicopter and crew in Dallesport by the middle of June, a move that could add about $1 million to the annual local payroll.
The helicopter would be based at the Columbia Gorge Regional Airport in Dallesport, and patients needing transport to Portland won't have to wait through the extra flight time.
"This is one of the top two or three enhancements to health care in this region for the last five or 10 years," said Duane Francis, president of Mid-Columbia Medical Center in The Dalles.
Skyline Hospital Administrator Mike Madden expressed enthusiasm for the idea.
"If we can get really, really sick patients to Portland in half an hour or 45 minutes less time, that's huge," he said.
Madden pointed out that Skyline transports several of its patients by helicopter every month, and LifeFlight is the company that currently comes to White Salmon.
"Apparently they are trying to make a helicopter more available to the rural areas," Madden said. "It's an innovative approach. If it's better and quicker service to the patient, that's good for the area. This would allow for a faster and better response."
Madden said Skyline uses the emergency helicopter service relatively frequently.
"On average, we move about two a month from our hospital, and another one a month from the scene where they land on site and take the person directly," Madden said. "Those are just the ones we're involved with."
With the potential for poor flying weather in the Gorge at any time, Madden said having the helicopter based locally would provide a big edge in reducing the impact of that problem.
"At times they have a difficult time flying the Gorge," Madden noted.
Francis said siting a helicopter in Dallesport offers medical facilities extra options
"In inclement weather when LifeFlight can't get through the Gorge, with the helicopter stationed right here, they can stay on the east side of the Cascades and transport south down to Bend," Francis explained.
Michael Griffiths, CEO of LifeFlight, said the move will also help patients in the Portland metro area, because more helicopters will be added to the LifeFlight fleet.
LifeFlight had been used primarily for trauma cases, including motor vehicle accidents and falls, but Griffiths said the company had expanded uses in other areas it currently serves.
"New treatments for a patient experiencing a heart attack or stroke are often just as time-sensitive as getting a trauma patient into surgery," he said.
Besides the emergency care benefits, the decision by LifeFlight to base a helicopter and crew in Dallesport brings a strong economic benefit.
"We will have a helicopter with a pilot, flight nurse, and flight paramedic stationed there seven days a week, 24 hours a day," said Griffiths.
In order to staff the service at that level, Griffiths said, the company would hire approximately five full-time flight nurses, five full-time paramedics, four full-time pilots, and some part-time paramedics.
Airport Manager Jim Lehman said talks with LifeFlight began in December, but specific details were still being firmed up.
Last October, the airport announced that Skyline Hospital had agreed to become a tenant at the airport, and would occupy a 2,100 square foot facility with living quarters and a two-bay ambulance garage.
"Ideally, we want to incorporate this development with the ambulances there," Lehman said.
Madden said that idea makes sense. Skyline has an EMT, a paramedic, and an ambulance staged in Dallesport around the clock, and they will soon be moved into a new facility being designed at the airport at Dallesport.
"The airport is already building a facility for an ambulance and crew," Madden said. "If they need helicopter personnel quarters, then they could build a bigger place and have quarters for both services in the same place."
Madden added that the airport is trying to bring a commercial carrier to the airport, and one of the requirements of that move is that an ambulance be on site for every takeoff and landing.
A helicopter based out of Dallesport would be able to offer service to Yakima and as far south as Bend, Ore., Madden said, adding that the Dallesport service could provide competition for a medical helicopter based in Spokane.
"Spokane's helicopter comes into the east end of Klickitat County, and this would be competing in some areas with Spokane service," Madden explained. "But if it's providing better service for our patients, great."