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FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — A judge says air ambulance service in the oilsands region in northeast Alberta is hobbled because helicopters can’t land directly at the Fort McMurray hospital.

A fatality inquiry report into the 2007 death of an oilsands worker recommends government officials move “with all due haste” to enable helicopter flights to the hospital, noting the lack of an approved landing pad is undermining the capabilities of the air ambulance.

Helicopters carrying injured people must now land at the city’s airport first. Patients are then transferred to a ground ambulance that drives to the hospital, a process that can take 25 minutes or longer. 

“What appears to be an excellent helicopter service is not being used to its full advantage because of this problem,” provincial court Judge James Jacques said in his report released Wednesday.

“Time is a critical factor in emergency care, and the current necessity of taking patients to the helicopter base and transporting them by ground ambulance wastes crucial minutes.”

Paul Spring, spokesman for the Helicopter Emergency Response Organization in Fort McMurray, welcomed the finding. He noted people in the region have been calling for the hospital landing pad for years.

Former premier Jim Prentice promised millions of dollars for the project in 2014.

Last April, the NDP government said planning was underway and construction was expected to begin by the end of this year. Alberta Health Services said it would comment on the report later Wednesday.

Spring said there is hope it may be ready by the end of 2018, adding it can’t come fast enough.

“Time is the killer, and that is what we are fighting,” Spring said.

“I had a critically injured patient with an open head wound who was in really rough condition and very close to dying and we had to fly past the hospital to land at the airport to put the patient in an ambulance and take them back to the hospital.”  

The judge’s finding is the only recommendation from the inquiry into the 2007 death of Ge Genbao, a worker from China who died after being injured at the CNRL Horizon oilsands construction site.

He died while being taken to hospital by a ground ambulance. The report said his injuries were so severe it is unlikely that a helicopter transport would have saved his life.

Spring said the air ambulance service is also used to help traffic accident victims and people with health problems in remote Indigenous communities.

He said it’s a shame it is taking so long to improve the service.

“I think it should have happened about 10 years ago,” he said. 

— By John Cotter in Edmonton

The Canadian Press

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