FAA HEMS Initiatives under Audit
Fresh pressure is being placed on the FAA to revise and finalize its 2010 notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that would mandate the installation of helicopter terrain avoidance and warning systems (HTAWS) and radar altimeters on all U.S. emergency medical service (EMS) helicopters. The NPRM drew a firestorm of criticism from affected stakeholders for favoring high-cost solutions over less expensive, and some argued, more effective safety technology such as night-vision goggles (NVGs). Also criticized was what some see as the FAA’s slow approval process for related supplemental type certificates and field approvals. Nevertheless, over the last decade, the helicopter EMS (HEMS) industry and the FAA have been working together on a variety of voluntary and collaborative initiatives to improve HEMS safety, and there is some evidence that this approach is working as the number of HEMS accidents per 100,000 flight hours continues to decline in the U.S., even as the industry has rapidly grown from a handful of EMS helicopters in the early 1980s to nearly 1,000 today.
However, in part due to the nature of their flights and operating environments, the HEMS accident rate continues to be twice as high as that for other types of Part 135 operations. Last year U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the House aviation subcommittee, asked the Department of Transportation’s inspector general to review the FAA’s progress in improving HEMS safety. The DOT commenced its audit last November with the stated objectives of evaluating the FAA’s progress in meeting requirements for HEMS operations cited in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, and whether the FAA has implemented other actions to reduce the HEMS accident rate. As part of its inquiry, the DOT probe will undoubtedly examine the reasons for the delay of a final HEMS rule. The audit also comes a full three months before helicopter EMS operators are to make their first report to the FAA on number of flights and hours flown, data that ostensibly will be used to aid the FAA in promulgating further risk-mitigation strategies for the industry as mandated under the 2012 Act.
Meanwhile, the NTSB continues to recommend additional HEMS safety enhancements such as mandatory and recurring scenario-based simulator training for pilots. The nation’s largest HEMS operators already use simulator training to sharpen crew skills and avoid the two most common causes of fatal HEMS accidents: controlled flight into terrain and inadvertent flight into instrument meteorological conditions. In January, the NTSB placed helicopter safety on its 2014 “most-wanted list” and senior board members, including chairman Deborah Hersman, were expected to participate in a helicopter safety presentation here at Heli-Expo yesterday (February 24). Over the last decade, the NTSB has made more than 100 helicopter-specific safety recommendations.
Writing on the NTSB “Safety Compass” blog on January 24, board vice chairman Christopher Hart noted, “The NTSB believes that improving the safety of helicopter operations will require increased awareness among, and action by, key stakeholders such as the helicopter manufacturers, operators, training [providers] and regulatory agencies. In 2004, as a way to share industry best practices and coordinate industry responses to safety recommendations and requirements, the FAA and industry established the Helicopter Emergency Medical Services Safety Task Force. This effort led to many safety improvements, but ceased meeting shortly before the issuance of the FAA’s  NPRM. Last week, I was pleased to attend a meeting in which stakeholders involved in the original HEMS Safety Task Force met to address delays in the issuance of the final rule and current helicopter industry safety initiatives.”
The NTSB has recommended that HEMS operators adopt safety management systems and that their aircraft be equipped with night-vision goggles, flight recorders and autopilots for single-pilot operations. None of these were addressed in the 2010 NPRM.