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Weather keeping Riggs helicopters out of the sky in Merced County

The RIGGS helicopter lands on the Buhach Colony football field to transport a crash victim during a staged drunken-driving crash at Buhach Colony High School in Atwater, Calif., Wednesday, April, 1, 2015. Lately, Riggs helicopters haven’t been able to transport patients due to weather conditions.
The RIGGS helicopter lands on the Buhach Colony football field to transport a crash victim during a staged drunken-driving crash at Buhach Colony High School in Atwater, Calif., Wednesday, April, 1, 2015. Lately, Riggs helicopters haven’t been able to transport patients due to weather conditions. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

A week of wet weather in Merced County frequently grounded Riggs Ambulance Service helicopters, slowing efforts to rush some patients to emergency medical care outside the county.

“Because of the storms, we have had to turn down flights,” said Steve Crabtree, program director for Riggs Air. “We saw a rise in ground transportation and got patients out like that.”

Helicopters are often used in situations involving trauma, said Philip Brown, director of emergency services for Mercy Medical Center in Merced.

Mercy Medical is not a trauma center, Brown said, and the nearest trauma hospitals are in Modesto and Fresno.

Flying a patient to Modesto takes 18 minutes, Crabtree said, while ground transportation takes 45 minutes. The upside to the time difference is the ability to “have the same crew and pretty much bring the critical-care unit with them to that transport.”

In situations where individuals need specialty services, Brown said, paramedics stabilize the patient and decide where to take him or her. Accidents involving broken limbs or laceration can be handled locally, he said.

“When more systems are affected like the brain or inside the torso, that exceeds our capabilities,” Brown said.

Unlike other ambulance services in California counties, Crabtree said, Riggs has the flight nurse and paramedic on board.

“We have the ability to put a flight crew in the ambulance,” he said.

Part of the pilot’s job is to take into consideration the weather conditions from the departure location, Crabtree said, as well as the conditions where the landing will take place. The conditions in other areas can prevent helicopters from flying.

“Sometimes it’s because the destination is rained in or fogged in,” he said.

According to Dan Harty, meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Hanford, dry weather is expected Friday through Tuesday.

“Once we see the rain stop, with all the moisture in the ground, we have potential for tule fog,” Harty said. “It could be a concern for drivers.”

Monica Velez: 209-385-2486

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