Road closures: Stay clear of the chopper

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Closing a road for a medical helicopter to land might be an inconvenience for motorists, but for the patient urgently requiring the care it can be lifesaving. ER24 is urging all motorists to be patient when a helicopter rescue is underway.

A medical helicopter is used for various reasons:

  • The seriousness of a patient’s injuries
  • The patient needs to get to an appropriate facility immediately
  • Considering the terrain
  • To have the necessary medical expertise close by
  • There are also various other factors that may influence the decision to airlift a patient. These are usually determined in conjunction with the Medical Officer on call

Gareth Staley, ER24’s Gauteng Regional Manager, explains that helicopters don’t always land on the road.

“We prefer not to land on a road. It remains a safety risk. We prefer to land on a field close to the scene but sometimes the road is the only option. We would then get the traffic police, the fire department or the police to assist. If not, our crews assist by using road cones or blocking the road with ER24 vehicles.”

Reasons why a road gets closed:

  • A helicopter requires enough space to land. This offers more options should something go wrong
  • There is no suitable space on the side of the road for the helicopter to land. This can be because of fences, barriers or uneven ground
  • Especially at night the road offers better lighting
  • To be closer to the scene

Jo Nieman, emergency service liaison at Flightshare, explains further.

“There are certain scoring mechanisms that paramedics use when on a scene. For example, when a patient is seriously injured and the hospital is 10 minutes away, peak time traffic on this route will now take you about an hour. A helicopter is potentially the better option here.

“You also need to consider the terrain. Are we stuck in the middle of nowhere? A patient might suffer from a spinal injury in a place far from civilisation. The road might be too bumpy and driving with the ambulance could potentially worsen the patient’s injury.

“A patient might also need the skills of a higher qualified paramedic and the helicopter is used to transport such a paramedic to a scene,” said Nieman.

According to Staley, “motorists ignore the road closures all the time.”

Nieman gives an example.

“We needed to close a road immediately for an emergency landing of a helicopter that needed to do an inter hospital transfer of a critically injured patient. The public got quite aggressive towards us. This could stress the pilot out. A helicopter will abort its mission if the landing pad isn’t properly prepared or if their safety isn’t guaranteed.”

“Motorists also don’t realise that when they ignore a closed intersection they might not know the dimensions of an aircraft. They see we might use a quarter of the closed intersection but it is because we need space. Some motorists ignore the cones and drive through the closed intersection. They might not take into consideration the blades or the tail rotor’s size. If you knock the tail rotor, for example, it can throw the aircraft off balance and this can be catastrophic,” said Nieman.

“You also need to understand that it could be your family member or someone you know that we are trying to save. Even if it might not be your family member now, if you crash into our aircraft it would mean that the helicopter is out of service when your family might need it the most,” said Nieman.

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