New Look First Flight Still a One-of-a-Kind Lifesaver: Brevard County’s Only Air Ambulance Makes 800 Patient Runs Annually
By Space Coast Daily // May 1, 2023
Health First’s Holmes Regional Medical Center is the area’s only Level II Trauma Center
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – An alert tone sounds over the intercom inside hangar 18 at Melbourne International Airport. A voice crackles with those critical words – “active request” – and pilot and crew leap into action. Within minutes, the helicopter rotors are turning, and Health First’s three-person First Flight crew is airborne.
Residents can look skyward and see the bold monogram and know that help is on the way.
Earlier this year, Health First made a huge investment in its helicopter ambulance service. It updated the second most important asset it has after its corps of specialty-trained personnel – the aircraft itself.
Originally a luxury six-seater for a German corporation, the Eurocopter EC135 P2+ was transformed into a world-class EMS helicopter before arriving here on the Space Coast.
“Our new EC135 P2+ offers advanced avionics and performance and a state-of-the-art medical interior that supports Health First’s mission of delivering world-class care at every point all around our community,” said First Flight Program Manager and Chief Flight Nurse Rob Spivey.
“For a single-aircraft emergency medical transport program in a mid-sized market, we’re a one-of-a-kind. We need a high-performing aircraft to keep up with our volume, and this one suits the mission objective.”
The new aircraft also brandishes the health system’s new brand monogram and the bold new color purple.
In lighter moments, Spivey may be heard calling the chopper the Purple People Treater, a play on the old pop song and nickname for the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line.
Health First’s First Flight is the primary helicopter ambulance service provider in Brevard County, as well as northern Indian River and parts of Osceola counties (it is a mutual aid partner for Volusia County). Per aircraft, First Flight does 70 to 80 flights each month, making it one of only a few high-volume, single-aircraft air ambulance programs in the region.
Health First’s Holmes Regional Medical Center is the area’s only Level II Trauma Center. Along with traumatic injuries from falls and motor vehicle accidents (multi-vehicle, single vehicle and vehicle-pedestrian (or bicyclist)), First Flight transports stroke sufferers for urgent treatment, including interventional treatments such as thrombectomies.
The service can transport a patient from Mims to Melbourne and Holmes Regional in about 18 minutes, less than half of the time it takes EMS ground vehicles. The health system is a partner with NASA and some private space companies for life support and medical emergency services.
The new aircraft is rated in IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) by the Federal Aviation Administration. This rating provides the aircraft added safety features even if utilizing the current standard of Visual Flight Rules. (It may only fly in visual meteorological conditions, or “clear weather.”)
From Mounts to Turnaround Time
First Flight Nurse Paramedic John Cilladi and Paramedic April Inganna said most casual observers wouldn’t notice many changes in the new aircraft, but from their perspective, the clinical environment is much improved.
“We have more storage. Our patient care is more efficient. It’s faster,” said Inganna.
“It’s very good for securing the equipment,” Cilladi said. “The mounts for ventilators, EKGs, they’re much improved, and this matters for the flow of patient care.”
The space for treating a patient is extremely confined. Being able to pocket or mount quickly the instrumentation and supplies that are part of routine emergency care directly impacts patient outcomes.
“And our turnaround time is a lot faster. Meaning, when we drop off a patient, we clean our equipment, reload the stretcher, return our equipment, and it’s so easy and simple in this aircraft – we can get back in service faster,” Inganna said.
First Flight By The Numbers:
Health First’s new Eurocopter EC135 P2+ has a top speed of about 150 knots but loaded with crew and patient will cruise at about 120 knots (135 to 140 miles per hour), says Chris Sands, one of its pilots. Here are some other quick facts.
■ First Flight makes about 800 patient transports a year now. Since its founding 35 years ago, it has carried more than 33,000 patients to critical, often lifesaving care.
■ Program Manager Rob Spivey oversees a clinical team of 12 along with four pilots and four mechanics.
■ First Flight’s clinicians like the work, apparently. Between them, they have a combined 150 years of experience in flight nursing and paramedicine.
■ The No. 1 reason for service calls – falls causing traumatic injury. Other top reasons include motor vehicle accidents, motor vehicles striking pedestrians and bicyclists, criminal assaults, and strokes.
■ First Flight has made patient runs as far away as the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Jackson Memorial in Miami, and the Florida Gulf Coast.
Visit HF.org/news to keep up with the latest at Health First.