The Future is in the STARS

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When Canadian medical transport provider STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society) begins operations from a new base in Saskatoon, Sask., this October, it will be the third such recent expansion for the non-profit organization. Add to this the anticipated arrival of two AgustaWestland AW139s in the coming months, and its certainly an exciting period of development for the Alberta-based operator.

From Humble Beginnings
STARS began its operations in 1985 from a single base in Calgary, Alta. (where its headquarters remain). And, with bases added in Edmonton, and, more recently, in Grande Prairie, STARS remained a solely Alberta-based operator right up until last year, when it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Manitoba government to create a helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) program based out of Winnipeg. The recent creation of a base in Regina, Sask., was the first in that province, and will soon be joined by the organizations sixth base, in Saskatoon.

Scott Young, STARS vice-president of aviation, told Vertical 911 that this recent growth spurt wasnt planned. Manitoba and Saskatchewan were not targeted by us, we were asked to consider moving into those provinces.Were not actively seeking growth opportunities, but if somebody does come to us, we will always have an open door to discuss opportunities for people that need our help.

The operators first connection to Manitoba began with a three-month provincial government contract in 2009 to provide HEMS assistance during a major flood. Another flood brought STARS back in 2011, during which time the organization was asked to consider staying to establish a permanent HEMS program. It really evolved into a permanent solution, said Young. They asked us to stay and we did.

The creation of a HEMS program in neighboring Saskatchewan was something the provincial government there had set as a mandate after the 2011 elections. They really liked the STARS model, where were a not-for-profit; were patient-focused and were really a public/private partnership, said Young. 

Overall Expansion
The size of the STARS fleet is gradually growing to match its expansion in bases. Along with the two new AW139s coming on line, two retrofitted MBB (now Eurocopter) BK-117s are being added to the organizations existing fleet of five. The first new BK-117 is expected to have completed its 10-month upgrade during the summer. The retrofit process it is going through has involved the stripping out of all previous modifications and then the addition of: seven Eurocopter factory options; a Canada kit, including cold weather equipment; and another 20 major modifications, including various medical and safety features.

As for the AW139s, Young said the first one is nearing completion and is expected to join the fleet at STARS Edmonton base in late summer or early fall; the second is due to be completed in early 2013 and will be based in Calgary. These two new aircraft will improve both the operators speed and reach: STARS is estimating that there will be a 25 percent increase in speed, and that the out-and-back range without refueling will grow from the BK-117s current 155 miles (250 kilometers), to around 210 miles, depending on the operating weight of the AW139.

Thatll allow us to go to a lot of places in the province that wouldnt be as viable an option right now, said Cam Heke, STARS manager of media and public relations. In particular, he said, it would help the Edmonton base better service parts of a very busy, very remote highway that stretches up to Fort McMurray in northern Alberta that experiences quite a few car accidents. The AW139 will certainly make STARS a more viable option in terms of responding to calls in that area, he said.

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Heke said there may even be another AW139 added to the fleet for the Saskatoon base with strong discussions taking place about the possibility.

According to Young, the reaction to STARS in the new communities has been very positive: There are quite a few patients weve flown in Alberta that actually live in Saskatchewan or Manitoba, so there was always some connection with the community even though we werent operating there. . . . When the news went public that we were moving to grow into Saskatchewan and Manitoba, we had a huge amount of support from all levels, from the government, all the way down to schoolchildren.

The creation of the bases has also led to welcome jobs, with a number of pilots, aircraft maintenance engineers, air medical crewmembers and various support staff already hired. In total, Young said well over 100 jobs will be created.

Were pretty much where we need to be right now [in regards to personnel], said Young. Although, With the economy where it is and the other operators where they are, there arent a huge amount of high-time, multi-IFR [instrument flight rules] captains out there, so we were a little concerned to move so quickly. But, the response has been overwhelming. Weve got some absolutely amazing people that came to us and really re-affirmed that we are quite a popular choice for pilots for their flying careers.

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