Air medical transport consists of helicopter (or rotor-wing) and airplane (or fixed-wing) transport and is an important component of EMS systems for prehospital care and interfacility transport. These specialized vehicles offer fast speeds, ranging from 100 to 200 miles per hour for helicopters to >500 miles per hour for airplanes. However, planning for appropriate vehicle use involves many other logistic factors in addition to speed. Although many ill and injured patients can be transported safely by ground, air medical transport provides added medical assessment and care capabilities beyond those of the paramedic-staffed ground ambulance. Guidelines for the use of air medical transport exist, but field EMS personnel and physicians involved in transfer decision making should be able to consider situational circumstances to determine the appropriate transportation mode.
With the occasionally important exception of ground transport legs (e.g., from a landing zone to the patient or from an airport to the hospital), air transport modalities are not limited by traffic or road quality. Weather can be an operational limitation, particularly for helicopters. The radius of service differs between helicopters and fixed-wing craft, but, as a general rule, fixed-wing transport is considered when weather conditions are poor or when transport distances exceed 150 to 200 miles.
The complexity of air transport far exceeds the simple act of loading a patient on an airborne vehicle. National organizations such as the Air Medical Physician Association, the Committee on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems, and the National Association of EMS Physicians have published texts, position statements, and guidelines covering aspects of air medical transport. The Air Medical Physician Association (http://www.ampa.org) Air Medical Physician Handbook is a particularly helpful resource for medical issues. The Committee on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (http://www.camts.org) accreditation standards address medical, aviation, organizational, and operational issues. The National Association of EMS Physicians (http://www.naemsp.org) has created detailed position statements and guidelines addressing helicopter EMS trauma and nontrauma triage criteria, as well as training of physicians involved as air medical crew or medical directors.
The effectiveness of air medical services is enabled by attention to a myriad of factors that come into play before, during, and after actual patient transport. The transport service should disseminate protocols guiding appropriate triage, and the program's communications personnel (as well as its physician consultants) should be versed and available for rapid decision making as to appropriate vehicle use. Ongoing training of referring agencies should occur to ensure safe and efficient operations during air transport service arrival (e.g., securing of landing zones) and transition of patient care to the flight crew (e.g., loading of patients onto the aircraft). Rigorous training programs, covering both cognitive and procedural skills, enable flight crews to provide a high level of intratransport care. In-flight communications capabilities should include the ability of the air medical crew to speak with medical control physicians, as well as arrange for any change of plan ...