Report: Response to Fatal Canada Chopper Crash Plagued by Delays

Report: Response to Fatal Canada Chopper Crash Plagued by Delays

News Dec 02, 2012

Pilot Tiffany Hanna did not die right away after crashing her helicopter a year ago at the local airport.

She was breathing and unconscious when police reached her eight minutes after the crash, according to emergency communications obtained by The Record.

For the next dozen minutes, police watched her fade, before firefighters and paramedics arrived in a rescue plagued by delays and 911 miscommunications.

"She's not looking good," a police officer reported three minutes after reaching her.

Nine minutes later an ambulance was in sight but paramedics had still not reached Hanna.

Her vital signs were fading.

"Try and put a rush on it," a police dispatcher pleaded with paramedics.

It was later determined that rescuers could not have saved the pilot. Her injuries were too severe.

"That doesn't change the deplorable, despicable way in which they finally got to the crash site," said Marion Hanna, the pilot's mother. "It was like mashed potato land."

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She points to student pilot Scott Puillandre who survived his injuries. "He suffered needlessly, had they gotten him out of there quicker."

Hanna, 29, crashed into a drainage pond at the Region of Waterloo International Airport shortly after takeoff on Nov. 28, 2011. An investigation found she failed to manage ice buildup in the engine. It was a routine training flight.

"The die was cast," said Dr. Jack Stanborough, regional supervising coroner. "Response time was irrelevant. ... If the accident occurred in the parking lot of the local trauma centre, her life expectancy still would have been abysmal."

The Record has obtained emergency communications and reports from Waterloo Regional Police in a freedom-of-information request. They reveal on-the-scene frustration.

"You can hear stress in their voice," said Insp. Kevin Thaler of Waterloo Regional Police.

Recordings also highlight 911 miscommunications first made public by the newspaper.

Waterloo regional council responded to the crash by calling for a plan to put police, fire and ultimately ambulance dispatchers under the same roof. But council won't meet a 2012 deadline for a proposal and budget.

Municipal politicians will instead get an update Dec. 12 from police, fire and ambulance chiefs, who will be seeking direction and assessing political will to move forward.

"We're some time away from an implementation plan," said Larry Gravill, the retired Waterloo Regional Police chief who's chairing a working group on merging emergency dispatch. "There seems to be a growing consensus that something needs to be done."

Currently four different centres dispatch police, firefighters and ambulances. They are operated by regional, city and provincial governments. A study found it takes up to three minutes, 19 seconds to get all emergency vehicles on the road after all centres talk to each other.

"We think a unified dispatch is the way to go," Regional Chair Ken Seiling said. He hopes police and fire dispatchers can be put together to start, to speed response times and improve communication.

Ambulances are dispatched provincially. The province, which has rejected a unified dispatch, has agreed to send an observer when emergency chiefs discuss it.

"I think we're moving ahead very well," Seiling said, pointing to progress on post-crash recommendations.

Earlier calls to merge emergency dispatching faltered in the face of technology, cost, labour and governance hurdles.

Governments need to put aside turf concerns, Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris argues. He has pressed the Liberal government to join in local talks. "If folks are going to put barriers in place to shaving precious seconds off emergency vehicles responding to our communities, then they're going down the wrong path," he said.

When the helicopter crashed, civilian bystanders mounted a heroic effort even as emergency responders struggled to reach the site, police reports reveal.

Bystanders flagged down motorists to call 911. They jumped a fence surrounding the pond, hopped through wires and swam to the wrecked helicopter. They pulled Puillandre to shore and tended to Hanna in her final minutes.

However, an air ambulance delayed taking off from Toronto, under a money-saving policy later rescinded. It eventually transported the survivor to a Hamilton trauma centre from Grand River Hospital in Kitchener.

Stanborough has ruled out an inquest into Hanna's death, mostly because she could not have been saved by a faster rescue. That's based on her cause of death and autopsy, which have not been made public.

The coroner points to other factors against an inquest. The student pilot survived. Journalists probed rescue miscues. Emergency responders crafted recommendations in an internal review. He has seen no evidence of 911 miscues putting lives at risk in other local emergencies.

He'll be watching to see if politicians make rescue improvements. Inquests may still be called years later if recommendations sit on a shelf.

"Sometimes, for lack of a better term, there's some lip service but no action," Stanborough said. "We want to make sure that there's action that's done."

A year ago, Marion Hanna had to tell her grandson Tyler, then six, that his mother was never coming home. Wednesday marked the anniversary of Tiffany's death. It was a difficult day.

"Do me a favour - run her picture," she said, voice breaking. "If the picture of her will wake people up to go, you know, they're not on the ball...."

An internal review produced nine recommendations after a fatal helicopter crash. Here's an update provided by regional government and police.

1. In 2012 develop a plan to put police and fire dispatchers under one roof while encouraging provincial ambulance dispatchers to join. Consider funding the plan in 2013.Municipal politicians will receive an update but not a plan at a joint meeting Dec. 12.

2. Link 911 dispatch directly to the airport. In progress.

3. Review crisis communications policies. A working group reviewed the policies last April and a further exercise is planned in December.

4. Strengthen joint emergency training between airport and municipal firefighters. A joint communications exercise was held Nov. 15. Joint training has been undertaken and all opportunities to partner in training will be undertaken.

5 and 6. Clarify if the airport is to respond to emergencies outside the airport and equip and prepare airport personnel to do this. An agreement has been finalized. The airport will respond to aircraft emergencies in a defined area around the airport but will only go farther if requested. Airport fire vehicles will have GPS equipment by the end of 2012.

7. Ensure all airport buildings have addresses and provide them to 911 dispatchers. Done. Police are working out how to integrate addressing information in their database.

8. Provide more training in the 911 dispatch centre to ensure all responders get all updates on emergency locations. Done.

9. Train emergency responders in unified command during an emergency. An agreement has been signed by all key agencies, and airport managers are being trained in incident management.

Waterloo Region Record
Jeff Outhit
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