If you are a paramedic in the front seat of an air ambulance, are you fit and healthy enough to safely fulfil this role? What are the consequences of a sudden incapacitation while in the front seat at a critical stage of flight?
HEMS operations are by their nature, hazardous from an aviation point of view. The flights are unscheduled, often carried out in restricted airspace with frequent landings in unprepared areas with the pressure of knowing that you are potentially delivering life-saving care to the scene. To add to the hazards, the recent development of night flights present the additional challenges of disorientation, low-light and easily concealed obstructions.
Such a flying regimen demands a high degree of flying skills and airmanship. A lot of air ambulances employ aircrew with experience in military flying operations, which have similar demands. However, these military operations are mainly conducted on platforms that have two pilots in the front seat. A lot of air ambulance operations have a pilot/paramedic combination as an alternative.
While paramedics are trained to a good standard of airmanship through their crew training courses, the health dimension also requires consideration
Air ambulances currently operate with either two pilots (mostly this is only during darkness) or a single pilot, teamed with a paramedic in the front seat operating as a technical crew member (TCM). The latter combination applies to the majority of UK air ambulances1. As defined by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA)2, the role of the paramedic is to assist the pilot ‘during HEMS operations which may require the operation of specialised on-board equipment’3. The TCM is providing a regulated, flight safety-critical role and therefore their actions should not be mitigated by their general health.
While paramedics are trained to a good standard of airmanship through their crew training courses, the health dimension also requires consideration. Helimed operations are inherently demanding and call on a high standard of medical fitness.
The current standard of health monitoring practice at air ambulance units is for crew members to verbally declare themselves ‘fit’ at the daily brief. While this is always needed to cover acute illness, self-declared fitness is not against an agreed standard and also puts the onus on individuals where there may be self-induced pressure to ensure that they are able to fly that day. It could be argued that if this is the only form of health monitoring for TCMs within a unit, then this would be insufficient to ensure an individual is fit to fly.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) demands that airline cabin crew, who occupy no front-seat role, but nonetheless perform safety-related tasks, undergo medical assessments4. However, there are no
such CAA-led standards for HEMS crewmembers. Each air ambulance operator has to interpret itself what the medical standards should be for their HEMS crew. Wiltshire Air Ambulance has taken steps to meet this challenge and this may be a benchmark to consider as good practice.
The regulatory framework
EASA has published the requirements for operators with TCMs in HEMS and NVIS (night vision imaging system) operations. Regulation ORO.TC.105 sets down the conditions for assignment to duties where TCMs can only start duties if they ‘are physically and mentally fit to safely discharge assigned duties and responsibilities’. The guidance material for this EASA order is adopted by the British Helicopter Association (BHA) in its HEMS Guidelines, Number 11 as follows:
The technical crewmember in HEMS, HHO or NVIS operations should undergo an initial medical examination or assessment and, if applicable, a re-assessment before undertaking duties
Any medical assessment or reassessment should be carried out according to best aeromedical practice by a medical practitioner who has sufficiently detailed knowledge of the applicant’s medical history
The operator should maintain a record of medical fitness for each technical crew member.
Technical crew members should:
- Be in good health
- Be free from any physical or mental illness that might lead to incapacitation or inability to perform crew duties
- Have normal cardiorespiratory function
- Have normal central nervous system
- Have adequate visual acuity 6/9 with or without glasses
- Have adequate hearing, and
- Have normal function of ear, nose and throat.
Within this framework, WAA has developed its own health monitoring for TCMs, and has set medical standards which are described below.
First, a medical passenger5 such as a doctor or non-TCM paramedic who works solely with the patient and not in the front seat, signs their own declaration of fitness every 90 days. These medical passengers are, as such, not crucial to flight safety and therefore not subject to health monitoring. Pilots are required to undertake annual medical assessments in accordance with their licensing requirements, and they are also not monitored. TCMs who operate in the front seat, next to the
pilot, are subject to the medical assessment. When paramedics join WAA as TCMs, they complete a detailed health form, adapted from the CAA
Light Aircraft Pilot Licence (LAPL) medical standard. GP clinical summaries are obtained. The flight medical doctor then undertakes an evaluation that includes a look at their medical history, basic
observations, ECG, eyesight, hearing and a clinical examination.
For medical standards, the BHA guidance is that an individual is assessed to the equivalent standard of a DVLA Group 2/Light-Aircraft Pilot’s License/Class 2 Private Pilot Medical. WAA sets the standard
as appropriate to the work the paramedic is carrying out in the aviation environment. For example, as all front seat paramedics employ NVIS, eyesight requirements are much more stringent, approaching military standards.
Once working on the unit, TCMs are encouraged to declare any problems to the flight medical doctor. Any condition is assessed in the context of their flying role. Confidentiality is paramount, of course, so any condition that affects flying is passed onto the management purely in the context of restrictions in practice. For example, ‘Unfit front seat one month, but fit to work as a medical passenger, medical assessment required before return to full duties’, or ‘Unfit flying two weeks, fit for base work’.
Health is monitored on a yearly basis, through either a self-declaration or further examination, depending on age or risk factors. A health certificate is then renewed for a further 12 months. If a paramedic has a clinical problem that can affect work, a letter can be written to a consultant or GP explaining the paramedic’s occupational role and how it is affected. This helps provide guidance for the clinician on how to test for, or manage, a condition. The flight medical doctor is also available
as a ‘reach-back’ to deal with any medical problems a paramedic may present with.
The way ahead
I would suggest that air ambulance units consider the following measures to ensure the occupational health of those paramedics who are working as front seat crew in a helicopter, in order to ensure aviation safety and meet the EASA TCM Medical Standards requirement:
Appointment of a Flight Medical Doctor
A flight medical doctor should be a primary care physician. They would ideally work in pre-Hospital Emergency Medicine (PHEM) themselves, to help understand the working environment.
They also need experience and/or a qualification in aviation medicine or occupational health. They should not be involved in base management or clinical governance as this would mean a conflict of interest in maintaining confidentiality and independence. Such a doctor can also look at occupational health patterns to identify where the working environment can be improved.
Provision of periodic medical assessments
The chance to talk in an informal, one-to-one environment about any work or health concerns is important for the wellbeing of the HEMS crew members. It is important to ensure that eyesight and hearing standards are also maintained, and crews have appropriate equipment for their protection, such as adequate hearing protection.
Ensuring speedy referrals
If a paramedic is off sick, it is important that secondary care services understand how to manage a condition in the context of the individual working in the aviation environment. A letter to their GP can provide information to add to this dimension. The Doctor can ensure any referrals are rapidly made to ambulance service occupational services such as physiotherapy or mental health with minimal delays.
With thanks to Richard Miller, Georgio Bendoni and Jill Crooks from Wiltshire Air Ambulance for their assistance in preparing this article.