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Second medical helicopter available for Yellowstone emergencies

IDAHO FALLS – A second medical helicopter is available to respond to medical emergencies in Yellowstone National Park.

The Bell 407 GX helicopter at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls started operating May 1. It joins another copter there.

“It’s all about the patients and getting help to them,” said Andrew Garrity, medical director for Air Idaho Rescue. “If they are in Yellowstone, they may be in a place where they only have a park ranger available.”

The $4 million helicopter is operated by Air Methods Corp., which has a fleet of more than 400 medical helicopters around the nation. The company owns and operates Air Idaho Rescue.

The helicopter serving Yellowstone has a range of 300 miles and is staffed with a pilot, nurse and paramedic. It will operate seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s scheduled to operate to the end of September, when the tourist season starts winding down.

“From all indications, it’s a significant need,” said Lynette Sharp, regional clinical manager for Air Methods. “There continues to be a growing population that visits our first national park. We just found that the time patients were having to wait was too long.”

One of the most frequent medical emergencies are heart problems for tourists at the park, which has drawn more than 3 million visitors each of the last seven years.

“Weaknesses in their hearts manifest when they get into higher elevation,” Garrity told the Post Register.

But trauma-related injuries such as car accidents are also common. Some trauma is the result of run-ins with wildlife in the park.

“Most of the trauma that we see, the injuries were preventable,” said Doug Kinney, a flight nurse for Air Methods.

“A lot of our injuries would be prevented if people would just buckle up. Every year we also see a fair number of calls from an encounter with (bison) and bear. People just get too close to the animals.”

An ambulance carrying a patient from the park in summer traffic can take two hours to reach the hospital in Idaho Falls. Officials say a helicopter takes about 40 minutes.

“There is this thing called the ‘golden hour,’ ” Kinney said. “From the onset of the injury to where you should be in the ER is an hour. After that hour, your risk increases. Being closer allows us to close the gap on that golden hour.”