VAIL — Life flight has always been a tricky business in the High Country, with high costs, varying call volume and uncooperative weather — but an established helicopter ambulance company is going to give it a try, offering its services based out of Steamboat Springs.
Classic Lifeguard, a company that started in 1988 to transport injured and sick people from Lake Powell, also has locations in Utah and Wyoming. At the beginning of March, it opened a station at Bob Adams Field in Steamboat, and its coverage area will include Vail.
The company has nine rotor wing helicopters and five fixed-wing planes. Each will be staffed with a pilot, flight nurse and medic, and the service can be used for emergency transport between hospitals as well as search and rescue operations.
Better services for patients
The Vail Valley already has one ambulance service. Flight for Life choppers stationed in Summit County can get to Vail in minutes, mostly transporting people to Denver. For about a year beginning in 2010, TriState helicopter service was based out of the Eagle County Airport, but the company left the area two years ago. Classic Lifeguard is closer to areas in the Yampa Valley, which previously had to rely on helicopters from Grand Junction, but the company hopes it will be able to be an alternative option for the Vail area.
“Steamboat to Vail is well under 30 minutes,” said Classic Lifeguard Vice President Jason Atkins. “If there’s (another company) closer, then by all means they should be called, but if we’re the best option, we would love for them to call us.”
When the Steamboat hospital approached the company about coming to the area, Atkins said he saw a good opportunity. Classic Lifeguard specializes in high-altitude, geographically challenging locations, and the Colorado mountains seemed a likely spot to set up shop.
“This will offer better patient services,” said Atkins. “Most metro areas carry these services but just can’t come out in time to the more rural communities. When we started looking around out (in Steamboat), I was in shock that there wasn’t already a life flight service in Northern Colorado.”
Heli service in Vail
Classic Lifeguard offers a few unique options for a life flight service. Places such as Vail present distinct challenges — inclement weather both in the winter and summer often prevent flights from leaving the ground at all. Classic Lifeguard’s fleet of planes can fly in weather conditions that helicopters cannot, and they are useful in situations where multiple patients need to be transported.
Life flight can be astronomically expensive, so Classic Lifeguard offers an annual membership. A $60 yearly fee covers the cost an entire household with health insurance in the event they need life flight services from the company.
“There are a lot of ways to hurt yourself in the backcountry, so it seemed like a good thing to offer,” Atkins said.
The company has yet to make any formal relationships with Vail area hospitals, or other local emergency services.
While certain situations call for helicopters, the reality is that often with Rocky Mountain weather, patients are more often transported by ground ambulance, said Eagle County Paramedic Services CEO Fred Morrison.
“Most of our helicopter usage is from VVMC to Denver, in which case it’s closer to call a chopper from Summit County,” he said. “If we were up north in Bond and McCoy, however, (Steamboat Springs) might be closer.”
Assistant Managing Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.