News Provincial

Pandemic has impact on air ambulance

The Canadian Press

The County of Grande Prairie is contributing $500,000 to the STARS H145 fleet renewal campaign from 2020 to 2024, as STARS replaces its BK117s with H145 helicopters.

STARS representatives presented an update on how the air ambulance service is faring during the pandemic at last week’s county council meeting.

“2020 is like no year we’ve seen before … so our number one priority is to protect and maintain operations,” said Glenda Farnden, STARS senior municipal relations liaison.

“During this time of unparalleled uncertainty and distress, we see this reflected in increased missions and we rely on community partners like (the county) now more than ever.”

She told county council approximately 12 per cent of STARS’ missions have involved suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“We developed rigorous PPE measures and meticulous decontamination procedures and currently all STARS staff are working from home,” she said.

“Only operational staff are allowed at the bases.”

By the beginning of September, STARS has had 34 missions within the County of Grande Prairie, compared to 2019 and 2018 totals of 46 and 52, respectively.

This year, six have been in the Beaverlodge area and two each have been in the Wembley, Valhalla, Teepee Creek, La Glace and Horse Lake areas, according to STARS.

One has taken place in the Hythe area and there have been none in the Sexsmith or Clairmont areas.

STARS also presented 2021 fiscal data to county council showing projected provincial funding of $7.3 million, with estimated expenses of $36.7 million.

The current economic downturn’s impact on municipalities and other governments has been concerning to STARS, which depends on government support, she said.

The struggling economy has had other negative impacts on the organization, with Farnden saying this year’s STARS lottery failed to sell out.

This led to lost revenue of $1.2 million, she said.

“Most of our fundraising activities have been halted for the unforeseeable future, which equates to several million dollars in lost revenue.”

The Grande Prairie base was unable to host three planned golf tournaments, she noted.

Despite the lost revenue, she noted STARS has to move forward with pilot training for the new H145 helicopters. The H145s themselves cost $13 million each, Farnden said.

County council approved a contribution of $100,000 toward STARS fleet replacement per year for the next five years as part of its final 2020 budget.

Farnden told Town. & Country News three H145 helicopters are currently operational and it’s hoped all nine will be in place by the middle or end of 2022, replacing all BK117s.

It’s hoped the Grande Prairie base will have its H145 by the fall of 2021, she added.

Of the three current H145s, she said one is in Calgary, one is in Saskatoon and one is used for backup and training at various bases.

As a condition of the county’s support, STARS agreed to add the county logo to the new H145 helicopters for the next five years, according to county administration.

Those logos will be on all nine H145s, said Jon Gogan, STARS provincial aviation director for northern and central Alberta.

Because towns have smaller budgets than counties, Farnden said towns generally don’t make capital contributions.

However, she said Beaverlodge, Wembley, Hythe and Sexsmith each contribute approximately $2 per capita each year for operations.

She added the counties of Grande Prairie and Saddle Hills contribute $200,000 per year for operations and Greenview gives another $210,000.

By Brad Quarin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter/Town & Country News

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