Seconds count when it comes to transporting patients via aircraft from a crash or a hospital to much-needed medical care.
A company with plans to locate at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport hopes its presence will help lower those response times.
Thursday, Kolby Kolbet, vice president of clinical services with Life Link III, told the Airport Commission the aviation medical transport company is expanding and wants to put a base at the airport.
Life Link III recently determined the Brainerd lakes area needed another medical aircraft provider, Kolbet said, despite the presence of North Memorial Air Care at the airport. Crow Wing County is growing rapidly, he said, and also has a rapidly aging population.
The Bemidji Regional Airport has two air medical transport companies, Kolbet said, so Life Link III and North Memorial Air Care will be able to coexist in Brainerd. Mike Arnold, who works as a first responder in the area, said it's common to respond to an accident in the Aitkin area and not be able to get North Memorial Air Care to respond, because the aircraft is out on another call.
"As someone that uses the service, I don't see a problem having two helicopters in the area," Arnold said.
The company wants to have a base up and running by May, Kolbet said, but would be ready to operate as soon as February if a suitable building is found. The base will employ five full-time nurses, five full-time paramedics, four full-time pilots and two full-time mechanics, for a total of 16 employees.
Typically, Life Link III prefers a 60-by-60 foot building for its single-helicopter operations, Kolbet said. The building needs an area for the crew to rest, he said, as crew members work 12-hour shifts and are on-site 24/7.
In Brainerd, Life Link III is looking for a building with expansion capacity, which means an 80-by-80 foot building, Kolbet said. In the past, the company has been able to repurpose existing buildings, but is open to building a new building in Brainerd.
The base requires water and sewer service, Kolbet said, so it's fortunate to have the airport utility extension project currently bringing water and sewer service to the airport.
"We're very fortunate that the resources are here at Brainerd," Kolbet said.
For now, Kolbet will continue to work with airport staff to find a suitable building to house the Life Link III operation in Brainerd, until a permanent facility can be built. The primary way the Life Link III base will generate revenue for the airport will be through fuel sales.
How it works
When Life Link III receives a call from a first responder or a hospital for patient transport, instead of sending the closest Life Link III aircraft, the service sends the closest medical transport aircraft, regardless of who operates it, Kolbet said. Essentia Health is part of Life Link III, so the company will field all the calls for transport from Essentia Health-St. Joseph's Medical Center starting after Labor Day. The company plans on being fully operational on a 24/7 basis in 2017, so until then, it will continue to send North Memorial Air Care on those calls, as Life Link III won't have a local aircraft to send.
Any health care facility can call any aircraft for air medical transport, Kolbet said. In the past, air transport providers would just send their own aircraft, he said. Now, with aircraft available all over the state, the providers send the closest aircraft, regardless of affiliation.
"If it's one of our loved ones in the side of the road in a motor vehicle crash," Kolbet said, "we wouldn't care what name is on the side of the aircraft. We just want the closest, fastest helicopter to get there."
When the Life Link III call center receives a call for transport, it fields the call but at the same time calls multiple other medical air transport providers, to determine the closest aircraft, Kolbet said. All those providers share GPS data for their aircraft, he said, so each provider has tabs on the closest aircraft at all times.
"We work very collegial back and forth, the air medical transport programs do," Kolbet said.
Life Link III won't force a patient to be transported to a Life Link III-affiliated hospital, Kolbet said.
"We will transport a patient anywhere they want to go," Kolbet said. "As long as it's appropriate for the level of care that they need."
Life Link III currently transports many neonatal intensive care unit patients out of Brainerd to other hospitals in the state for necessary treatment, Kolbet said.
"We're the only ones who are providing that service, so that's what brings us to Brainerd," Kolbet said.
Life Link III is a private 501(c)(3) organization, Kolbet said, and is called Life Link III because of its three original members. Now, the company encompasses nine health systems, 44 hospitals and six bases. The company started in 1978 and decided to drop its ground ambulance service in favor of focusing on air medical transport in 2011.
Life Link III purchased six new aircraft in 2014 to standardize the fleet, Kolbet said, and is planning to purchase two more to support the Brainerd base. The company's mission is to provide safe and effective air medical transport, he said, "and we always put the patient first."
The newest base in Cloquet opened a year and a half ago, Kolbet said, and operates from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The aircraft in the Life Link III fleet are maintained and piloted by Air Methods, the largest air medical carrier in the U.S., Kolbet said.
"We own the aircraft, they operate them," Kolbet said.
The six Life Link III bases are in Alexandria, Blaine, Cloquet, Hibbing and Willmar, as well as Rice Lake, Wis.