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Support passed for important service for residents

As everyone is trying to weather the current economic storm, Ponoka County has taken a unique step to provide an essential service.
N AW139 3
The AW139 helicopter is the newest addition to the STARS fleet and provides better access to Albertans in need of emergency medical care.

As everyone is trying to weather the current economic storm, Ponoka County has taken a unique step to help provide its residents with what has been an essential service.

County council heard a presentation from Glenda Farnden, senior municipal relations liaison for STARS at their regular meeting on Tuesday, June 14 where the charitable foundation showed what they do and have done for area residents, while also making a pitch for a small financial contribution.

STARS - which stands for Shock Trauma Air Rescue Service - is unique in Canada as it is the only medical air response service that does not send a bill to patients. The non-profit service began its life in Alberta 31 years ago and now operates in the three western provinces with a fleet of 11 helicopters. Their Alberta bases are in Grande Prairie, Edmonton and Calgary with two of their newest and biggest helicopters, the AW139, operated out of the two major cities and supplemented each by one BK117 helicopter.

Farnden explained STARS flies, on average, five missions per day in Alberta alone and now with the AW139 capable of flying longer and farther, they can now reach 98 per cent of the province’s population. In addition, STARS enhanced their capabilities back in 2003 by becoming the only medi-flight service to be equipped with night-vision technology.

“We were the first to put that technology to use as a large portion of our flights are at night,” she told council.

“And, as we are an airborne intensive care unit, that care begins as soon as we arrive and we continue to strive to stay on the leading edge of technology in order to get patients to the hospital in better condition and improve their outcomes.”

Ponoka County is among the busier rural areas in the province, averaging two to three calls per month. Last year, that included 18 transfers from the Ponoka and Rimbey hospitals to go along with 10 landings at emergency scenes in the area.

STARS also does a lot in the way of education with their two mobile units touring the province, which included a stop in Ponoka earlier this year, along with the training they do with emergency medical personnel and fire departments - all of which takes a lot of money to operate.

“There is no doubt the services saves time and lives, but medical aviation is very costly. Two-thirds of our budget is spent on the medical side and it is all fueled by the generosity of Albertans,” Farnden stated.

In a bid to continue being independent, STARS receives just under $10 million of their nearly $43 million annual budget from Alberta Health Services with the rest coming through fundraising.

“The present economy has been challenging and a number of factors continue to take their toll. Our lottery brings in 33 per cent of our fundraising and has sold out for 23 straight years, a testament that show how important Albertans feel STARS is and we want to continue to work together to keep that service,” she said.

“The reality is Alberta is growing and aging, Alberta is not exempt from a challenging economy and call volume continues to go up six to 10 per cent each year, so we are engaging councils and looking at all options to maintain this vital service. For rural residents, access to prompt medical care can be key since time and distance is a disadvantage for them.

“Currently, two-thirds of counties support us with $1.3 million annually, so that’s why we ask that you consider the average of a $2 per capita annual contribution so we can be available for another 30 years.”

The motion for what works out to be about $18,000 per year for Ponoka County was quickly and unanimously approved.

“It’s an amazing service and a great program that is needed especially in the very far west portions of the county,” stated Reeve Paul McLauchlin.

In addition to the motion, councillor Doug Weir requested a letter be sent to the two other local municipalities - the towns of Ponoka and Rimbey - stating, “in the spirit of collaboration that both municipalities pledge similar financial support to STARS as Ponoka County.”