Chopper Control

Chopper Control

High-tech helipads modernize emergency transport services in Travis County, Texas

Helicopter emergency safety decisions are separate from medical decisions. Helicopter personnel need to be armed with the latest navigation tools to ensure safety for all onboard, especially when a matter of minutes can mean the difference between life and death.

Emergencies require action. Each year, helicopters safely transport approximately 400,000 patients and transplant organs, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The great number of emergencies that require immediate attention also necessitates effective communication between emergency agencies to achieve an immediate, safe response.

A lack of effective communication might have been the cause of a midair collision between two medical helicopters in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2008. The crash left six people dead and injured three others. Pilots were sufficiently trained, with thousands of flight hours; weather conditions were clear; and helicopters were inspected before takeoff—so what was the cause?

The Flagstaff Medical Center reported that it did not have flight controllers at the time of the crash, so determining air clearance for a safe landing rested solely on pilots’ visual navigation.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported eight fatal accidents in 2008, two in 2009 and two in the first half of June 2010. But those numbers have fallen from previous years. Since a government-industry partnership aimed at reducing the number of helicopter emergency safety accidents was established in 2004, the most recent statistics show that the fatality rate has been 1.18 per 100,000 hours, according to the FAA, which also notes that as of June 2010, some 840 EMS helicopters were operating in the United States. Some emergency response service helicopters are tackling the problem at the city level and higher, attempting to implement new communication technologies in an effort to avoid the threat of crashes or collisions during emergencies.

One part of the country paving the way for improved emergency communication methods is Travis County, Texas, home to the state’s capital city, Austin. Hospitals in the area are improving emergency helicopter communications to decrease the risk of accidents.

The county implemented new EMS communication methods between helicopter personnel and the 20 hospitals in the Austin area. A partnership among the Travis County Emergency Dispatch Center; county hospitals; STAR Flight, a central Texas aerial emergency response service; EMS; firefighters; and law-enforcement helicopter services, joined forces to create one cohesive emergency communication plan of action.

This program originally started with STAR Flight’s rescue helicopter system, which serves Travis County and 19 surrounding central Texas communities.

“The collision in Flagstaff, Arizona, forced us to re-evaluate what we were doing and how we were doing it,” said Casey Ping, program manager at STAR Flight.

STAR Flight realized that security offices for the county hospitals and communications center were taking inbound helicopter calls, but when they were coordinating routes, they didn’t have any way of ensuring a helipad was actually open. To remedy this, STAR Flight officials wanted to implement cameras on the helicopter pads to monitor activity and clearance landing—avoiding the chance of collisions.

Mitigating the Risks

“It’s all about safety,” Ping said. “That’s what we’re trying to do—identify any risks and exposures we have and try to mitigate those before they become a problem. I think we need to continue to evolve and use technology, because at the end of the day there are still people involved in the rescue process.”

Ping invested 18 months in this project and came up with three phases of development. Phase one connects all local helipads that have high transport rates. Phase two includes hospitals in towns with a lower transport volume. Phase three takes the monitoring system farther outside of the county to remote hospitals with adequate wireless coverage. These remote hospitals are less critical because they must request helicopters. High-traffic hospitals, on the other hand, can receive multiple helicopters, and hospitals do not know a helicopter is coming until an operator calls to say it is inbound.

STAR Flight wanted to monitor helipads and channel that data to Travis County’s emergency dispatch center. In an emergency, EMS would dispatch helicopters to the hospitals that had openings for helicopters to land.

The county already had an enterprise software package in place for monitoring cameras around campuses in town, so it tried to use that software at each hospital attempting to link all data to a VPN linking back to the county, EMS and city network.

The problem? Online security across agency networks was all over the place.

Bruce Bates, the county’s project manager, had exhausted much of his time in the previous year searching for a wireless data solution that could coordinate network access across various hospital ownerships, affiliations and management while meeting each sector’s security and privacy requirements.

“We have security issues with the county and then we have security issues with the city. We just weren’t able to come up with a real solution that solved all of those issues,” Bates said.

The network must be both functional and secure to counter potential hackers. One of the county’s lingering fears throughout the strategic planning process was the threat of a network attack. If the helipad cameras were monitored on unsecure networks, hackers could feed images of clear helipads to the network when those helipads were actually occupied. Because of this threat, having a secure system was critical.

After trial and error from a varied group of security system integrators, the county approached Dallas-based security systems integrator SecureNet with the request for an IP camera that could communicate with a host VMS over cellular wireless networks.

SecureNet created an enterprisewide application that reaches across all access control systems for both clients. The company’s longstanding partnerships earned it a chance to create an innovative system for Travis County.

The task for SecureNet was to figure out a middleware transmission solution that would allow cellular wireless to “talk” to the camera network.

“It’s all about thinking outside the box,” said Brian Bergstrom, CEO of SecureNet, which received the request in January 2011 and immediately began researching cellular routers. Once the router was online, the company started the survey process and implemented a test bed that same month. For the three months of the test bed, SecureNet worked on a solution that would make the network outdoors-friendly. By July 2011, the project moved into implementation.

“We did the research and found a cellular wireless router that was compatible with the system that we tested and used. That’s essentially what that middleware piece is,” said Robert Drozd, manager at SecureNet. “It acts as the translation between middleware IP and the cellular wireless network.” SecureNet opted for Sony cameras with a new ViewDR range and Verizon Wireless as the network provider.

Myriad factors affect image quality for these helipad locations. Some camera positions face in an easterly direction, others in a westerly direction. Some are illuminated at night from tall poles, causing shadow effects, while others have low-profile lighting pedestals that provide a well-lit concrete pad but shadows at heights above. To address these lighting issues, SecureNet chose the Sony SNC-CH140, which features “ViewDR” wide dynamic range visibility- enhancing technology.

While this camera’s maximum resolution is HD 720p (1.3-MP) with a frame rate of 30 fps, the functional goal of this project is simply to provide discernible video images so that the end user might determine whether or not a helipad is occupied. So in the interest of weighing cellular bandwidth and video efficiency with achieving target goals, the minimum starting specifications center around a frame rate of 1 fps, H.264 compression at the camera and 4-CIF image resolution. The end user then has the ability to adjust the frame rate and resolution accordingly.

Securing the System

“We wanted this monitoring system to be secure, and by having it on the county level we can do that,” Bates said. “We’re actually feeding the county’s Web browser, and we’re feeding it back to our software so we can record the data in case there’s an emergency that needs to be reviewed.”

After the testing phase was complete, Travis County drafted a contract with SecureNet to move forward with software implementation at seven local hospitals, with additional locations pending. The entire system costs each hospital $3,000 and comes with a modem and a Wi-Fi-friendly enclosure that has the necessary cooling and ventilation system to withstand the Texas heat.

“One of our business developers/analysts wrote a Web application that uses a ‘Brady Bunch’ collection of pictures where users can click on any particular helipad and make it into a full screen,” Bates said. “So we can get a V-tech to this Web link and they can monitor each helipad across the county during an emergency.”

The monitoring system will be accessed at Travis County’s emergency dispatch center. This will be the first time anyone outside the hospital buildings will monitor the helicopter pads.

The cameras and wireless system were to go up mid-September at seven Travis County sites, including all locations of St. David’s, Round Rock Hospital, University Medical Center of Brackenridge, Dell Children’s Medical Center, Seton Hospital, Heart Hospital and the STAR Flight base.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Security Today.


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