Dec 30, 2011 Amanda Seef Uncategorized
A public battle over Air-1’s helicopter service has drawn many parallels between the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office air service and other local entities, sometimes unfairly, said Sheriff Kevin Walsh.
The helicopter was recently defunded by the county legislature, but was left in the budget so that it can still fly. Now, Walsh is scrambling to raise $595,000 in the coming year to pay for the year’s expenses associated with the helicopter, which is used for police, fire, rescue and medical missions.
“We’ll continue to fly and we’ll have to reimburse our budget through the [Air-1] foundation,” Walsh said. The Sheriff’s Office has set up a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 account to solicit donations for the funding of the helicopter.
“One of the biggest complaints the Onondaga County legislature had over the years is that we fly outside of the county to save lives,” Walsh said. “I don’t so much care about the fact that we’re saving lives, I care that it’s costing Onondaga County taxpayers money for the time we’re outside of the county.”
Walsh has approached the surrounding counties seeking monetary support for the program. Cayuga County has been sending $5,000 every year for eight years, Walsh said. He’s waiting to hear back about final funding from other counties, though Oswego County has vowed to provide $10,000 in support, he added.
The Sheriff has also reached out to two corporations offering naming rights, for a price.
He is looking at two businesses that could bring in $100,000 in added revenue for Air-1 through advertising and naming rights.
The amount raised to date to fund the helicopter through the Air-1 Foundation was not readily available as of press time. Guidestar, a reporting agency for not-for-profits, did not have any financial information on record for the Air-1 Foundation.
But the county’s historic funding of the helicopter has some questioning why the public service is necessary if two other helicopters cover Onondaga County — the New York State Police split airtime with Air One, and the privately-owned Mercy Flight Central provides medical transports, as well.
“I don’t so much care about the fact that we’re saving lives, I care that it’s costing Onondaga County taxpayers money for the time we’re outside of the county.”
— Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh
Air One advantage
Air-1 has one major advantage over Mercy Flight Central, Walsh said.
“It’s used primarily for police work,” he said. Of the 1,028 calls that Air-1 responded to in 2010, nearly 1,000 were police work — lighting up dark areas, following high-speed pursuits and searching for lost hunters or dementia patients. The helicopter is also the only in the area with a Bambi Bucket, allowing for 500 gallons of water to be dropped on a remote or large-scale fire.
The 12-year-old helicopter splits air time with the New York State Police helicopter. The county’s helicopter is used to fly between 4 p.m. and 2 a.m. daily, staffed with four pilots who double as deputy sheriffs.
“I think we should emphasize we’re the only ship that does all three things: police work, rescues and medical transports,” Walsh said. “Mercy Flight can not do police and rescue work. They don’t do, and can’t do, that work.”
Walsh says eliminating the availability of Air-1 could mean limited searches for police work.
“Equipment on the ground is good for about a mile, the helicopter is good for about seven miles,” he said. “It makes for a quicker search.”
“Central New York doesn’t use helicopters as much in the overall scheme of things. I don’t think there’s a culture here of using air medical services.”
— Neil Snedeker, president of Mercy Flight Central
Air-1 works to cover Onondaga County as a priority, Walsh said.
“The biggest advantage of Air-1 is that it’s the only helicopter that 97 percent of the time is exclusively in Onondaga County,” he said. “Air-1 spends less than 3 to 5 percent of its time outside Onondaga County and those are in emergency situations.”
But since Nov. 1, six of the reported 12 incidents have been out of Onondaga County, including an airlift out of Jefferson County and a pursuit that began in Cayuga County, ending in Camillus.
The New York State Police chopper, which is based out of the same hangar at Hancock Air Base, covers 11 counties but remains based in Onondaga County.
The state’s single-engine helicopter primarily flies between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m. and is on-call the remaining eight hours of the day. The ship is used for police support, transports and is also equipped with a bambi bucket, said Sgt. Kern Swoboda. In total, the state police has 13 helicopters and six airplanes throughout the state with five stations — Syracuse is neighbored to the west by the helicopter in Batavia and to the east by a helicopter in Albany, the aviation unit’s headquarters.
Mercy Flight Central, a privately-owned business based in Canandaigua in the Finger Lakes region, provides critical care air ambulance services to 26 counties, including Onondaga County.
“Our sole mission is to transport people to the hospital,” said Neil Snedeker, president of Mercy Flight Central. Snedeker is a Syracuse resident and volunteer at MAVES, Marcellus Area Volunteer Emergency Services.
Mercy Flight gets, on average, about 200 calls a year in the central New York region and about 700 for the western New York areas. They have a second base in Marcellus.
The service is strictly a medevac, but it’s something he says sees more use in the Finger Lakes and Rochester region.
“Central New York doesn’t use helicopters as much in the overall scheme of things,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a culture here of using air medical services.”
When it comes to medical transports, all three helicopters are able to provide the same quick transport to a hospital.
“Air transports are good for when the time and level of care really matters,” Snedeker said. Where a car ride from Geneva to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester could take an hour, a flight could take 17 minutes, he added.
The level of care on-flight varies, though.
NYSP and Air-1 both operate as advanced life support, though Mercy Flight is certified to practice critical care support in the air.
“It’s higher in complexity, we can use the same prescriptions and procedures doctors would use in the emergency room,” Snedeker said. “There’s nobody we can’t fly. When it comes to the type of care that somebody needs, there is nobody we will leave at the scene.”
Mercy Flight employs its own paramedics for flights, whereas Air-1 uses Flight paramedics supplied by Western Area Volunteer Emergency Services, or WAVES, in Camillus. State Police contract with NAVAC, North Area Volunteer Ambulance Corps, out of North Syracuse. The EMTs are on-call.
Financing the flight
The Sheriff’s Office is currently in talks with the Federal Aviation Administration to fly under a new FAA regulation. Currently, the team flies under part-91 regulations as a public safety helicopter. Walsh has proposed for the helicopter to fly under part-135, allowing Air-1 to be a commercial helicopter.
“By flying under 135, that will allow us to charge insurance companies for medical transports that we’ve been doing for years at no charge,” Walsh said. “We’ve been doing them for years at no charge.”
Average costs for a flight could be between $12,000 and $15,000, Walsh said. In 2010, there were 28 medical transports, potentially bringing in $420,000 if the office were to bill full-price and collect the full payment.
“The reality is not everyone has insurance, so we will have to see,” Walsh said. “This is a new venture for us, so we’re hoping it brings in enough to help us offset the costs.”
But Snedeker says making money off medical transports is not a realistic option.
“It’s so difficult to actually profit from air ambulance,” Snedeker said. “Since the recession, people have lost their jobs. When you don’t have jobs, you don’t have health insurance. We transport people regardless of their ability to pay.”
Mercy Flight’s $10.5 million business writes off $2 million in bad debt each year from patients who weren’t able to pay for their transports. The organization receives some public funding, about $50,000 “on a good year,” Snedeker said. More than 65 percent of their budget is provided through patient revenue, and the remaining is made through donations from corporations, foundations and individuals.
Taking it to the legislature
Air-1 will be required to repay the $595,000 necessary to fly by the end of 2012.
“We’re in the budget under the grant section so basically we have to raise the money to pay for the grants later,” Walsh said. “It could be grants, donations, reimbursements for transports, those kinds of things.”
The 2012 adopted Onondaga County budget shows $345,519 is expected to be given back to the county from the Air-1 Foundation.
“As for fundraising, they’re doing a much better job now,” said County Legislator Kevin Holmquist (R—Manlius). “It’s been discussed for the last several years, he just recently made it a higher priority. I would have preferred if it was a high priority a few years ago.”
In October, Air-1 lost the last of the funding earmarked in the county budget for the aviation unit. Seven county legislators voted to keep funding, including Holmquist.
“As for fundraising, they’re doing a much better job now. It’s been discussed for the last several years, he just recently made it a higher priority. I would have preferred if it was a high priority a few years ago.”
— Kevin Holmquist, County Legislator (R—Manlius)
“I don’t believe that there is any facet of this Air-1 discussion we haven’t debated at great lengths,” Holmquist said. “We have always had legislators who support Air-1 and those who don’t. It’s a great service and I support it, but my support is qualified in the context of the money issue. They’ve got to get that under control.”
Holmquist, who will continue serving on the county legislature in 2012, said the issue at hand is not funding for Air-1 as a service, but rather funding for the Sheriff’s Office.
“My primary concern, overall, is with the Sheriff’s budget itself,” he said. “Over the past 10 years, the Sheriff’s budget has more than doubled, it’s grown at much more than the rate of inflation. Air-1 does not operate in a vacuum. Yes, it’s an expensive service, but the growth [of the Sheriff’s budget] is unsustainable.”
Fundraised monies are expected to be returned to the county by year’s end, though Walsh can re-approach the legislature, which has seven new faces on the board, and request additional funding to be moved around and reallocated for Air-1.