Journal of the San Juan Islands


Air ambulance: above and beyond | Guest Column

August 8, 2013 · Updated 3:28 PM

Critical care personnel prepare a patient for an emergency flight onboard San Juan EMS-supported Island Air Ambulance. / Contributed photo / Mark Mennie

By Larry Wall

Since the first settlers came to San Juan Island, community members have counted on each other for help in time of need. Whether it was raising children or raising a barn, islanders have always helped each other. The same was true for medical care. Patients needing advanced care were transported by any means possible.

In 1947, Roy Franklin, a legendary aviation pioneer, along with Dr. Malcolm Heath, provided air medical evacuations for island residents. This predates the other civilian air medical programs anywhere in the United States.

Since 1977, San Juan Island Emergency Medical System has been providing compassionate care for island residents and visitors. Because local healthcare was limited, EMS providers became very proficient at caring for the sick and injured. Patients with significant illness or injury needed to be flown off island and there were limited means to accomplish that mission.

Today, medical care providers and patients have options for transportation off island. While a trauma helicopter can service this region, that option is risky and expensive.

In the U.S. in 2008, there were 15 air medical helicopter accidents resulting in 29 fatalities.

In 2007, San Juan Island EMS joined forces with Island Air to create Island Air Ambulance which provided county residents and visitors with basic life support transport in an airplane. In cases requiring advanced life support, however, San Juan Island EMS had to send its only paramedic (a highly trained emergency medical provider) on the flight; therefore that medic was unavailable for other island emergencies.

Because of this, San Juan Island EMS decided to upgrade the air ambulance service by adding critical care flight nurses to provided advance life support transport. Also, to maintain an air medical license in the state of Washington, San Juan Island EMS and Island Air Ambulance needed to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems. In April of 2013, San Juan Island EMS/Island Air Ambulance received full CAMTS accreditation as a critical care transport program.

Today most patients requiring air medical transport from San Juan Island fly with Island Air Ambulance. This service results in no out-of-pocket costs to residents of San Juan Island, Pearl Island, Brown Island, Henry Island, Stuart Island, Johns Island and Spieden Island. These islands are all part of the taxing district which supports San Juan Island EMS.

Island Air Ambulance uses a Cessna 207, outfitted with a specialized stretcher system approved for air medical transport. The aircraft allows transport of the patient, two medical attendants, pilot, and an additional passenger when flight logistics allow. The aircraft is certified for both visual flight rules (VFR) and instrument flight rules (IFR) flight.   EMS pilots, provided by Island Air, average over 12,000 hours of flight experience.

San Juan Island EMS employs the latest technology and protocols to meet the best practice standards in the air medical industry. The medical staff includes critical care nurses, critical care flight paramedics, and specially qualified flight EMTs to provide fast, and safe air ambulance flights to the mainland.

Larry Wall— Editor’s note: Larry Wall is director of critical care transport for San Juan Island EMS/Island Air Ambulance


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