AVOCA — It’s 10 a.m. on a clear but chilly day in Northeastern Pennsylvania and a three-person crew and its flight manager for Geisinger Life Flight are already four hours into a shift at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport.
Life Flight pilot Scott Walters greets me and pages Life Flight nurse Mark Ercolani, paramedic Darlene Murawski and nurse and regional manager, Redmond “Red” Lines. They join Walters and me at a table in their kitchen within a few minutes.
The crew, less the pilot, works a 36-hour work week, in 12-hour shifts. The pilot works 14-hour days, with rotations of seven days on and seven days off. Life Flight is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
They give me a quick outline of their day as we sit in the kitchen. The crew signs in, goes over data and other information from the previous shift, holds a morning briefing and then waits for a call, which could come in at any time. It takes about 10 minutes from the time a call comes in to the time the crew takes off.
Murawski climbs into the helicopter and sits against the wall. She’s looking at a stretcher. She opens a couple of duffle-type bags and checks the contents. The ventilator is on and in working order, the defibrillators and oxygen are all in proper order. Everything seems to be stocked accurately and ready to go in case there is an emergency.
Lines says if an infant is being transported, the stretcher is swapped for an incubator, which is continuously heated.
Admittedly, it’s a bit cramped and the quarters are tight, but Murawski tells me that it’s like “driving a Cadillac” as previous helicopters have been smaller.
Walters takes me into his office, which holds a bed, a computer and a table. “We’re good,” he said, listening to the weather forecast. He then shows off his morning risk assessment sheets, which detail whether or not the crew can take flight.
He proves the aircraft is ready by sliding into the right side of the cockpit. Much like turning on a car, the lights on his dashboard — although more complex and bigger than a car — light up. There are lights indicating radar, scanner, satellite tracking systems, fuel level and, of course, the cyclic and collective flight controls.
Already in flight suits, the crew practices skills like intubation and CPR, work out and train while they wait for an “on-scene” or hospital-to-hospital call to come in. Those calls come about twice a day, Lines said.
The tones start chiming during a simulated call and the crew members grab their helmets and head to their stations for a mock departure.
Walters, from his morning check, has already learned the day is green, or safe to fly, and tells the crew. Days can be yellow or red if the weather is bad or the assessment of the incident is too high risk.
Murawski opens the hanger gate and Ercolani claims, “I’ll get the tractor.” He proceeds to get on the tractor and Walters gets in the cockpit. Once the gate is opened, Ercolani’s tractor pushes the movable helipad and waiting aircraft to a spot on the tarmac. Ercolani gets into the passenger seat of the cockpit and Murawski gets in the cabin.
“It takes two to three minutes to start up,” Walters said. The rotors need to be started and they need to check in with the control tower. “These guys are great,” he said, letting me know they get priority lift off with the air tower.
The crew monitors radio frequency and the call out — severity of and how many patients (Life Flight Avoca can transport two patients) — during the flight. To land elsewhere besides a hospital helipad, they need a 100-foot by 100-foot landing zone.
On the rare occasions when something may go wrong during flight, each of the crew members knows basic helicopter-flying skills.
The fuel tank allows them to only go 300 miles in any direction. One time they transported from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, another time to the Alfred I. Dupont Hospital in Delaware. If they’re in Danville, they may get a call to go back out so they fuel and restock at the Geisinger Medical Center.
When they land back at Avoca, the process is quite the same. Someone, mostly Walters, will tractor the helipad back into the hangar, someone will restock the equipment and then the crew does follow up paperwork on the patient. Walters notes he can refuel the helicopter himself upon landing.
When a call doesn’t come in, crew members occupy themselves by using bench weights, treadmills and other workout machines. Sometimes, they will practice life-saving techniques on dummies. Ercolani showed off an old laryngoscope and the new Glidescope .
The Glidescope uses a real-time video monitor for quicker, easier intubation — the placement of a tube into the windpipe to serve as an artificial airway. The laryngoscope, (picture a tounge depressor on steroids) helps keep the tounge back so a rescuer can gain access to the windpipe and vocal cords. Once the cords are found, the medic starts intubation and the oxygen mask is put on.
The day ends and the crew cross-shifts with the next crew before signing out — going home, only to return the next day to do it all again.
Reach Melanie Mizenko at 570-991-6116 or on Twitter @TL_MMizenko