FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. — A judge says air ambulance service in the oilsands region in northeast Alberta is hobbled because helicopters can't land directly at the Fort McMurray hospital.
A fatality inquiry report into the 2007 death of an oilsands worker recommends government officials move "with all due haste" to enable helicopter flights to the hospital, noting the lack of an approved landing pad is undermining the capabilities of the air ambulance.
Helicopters carrying injured people must now land at the city's airport first. Patients are then transferred to a ground ambulance that drives to the hospital, a process that can take 25 minutes or longer.
"What appears to be an excellent helicopter service is not being used to its full advantage because of this problem," provincial court Judge James Jacques said in his report released Wednesday.
"Time is a critical factor in emergency care, and the current necessity of taking patients to the helicopter base and transporting them by ground ambulance wastes crucial minutes."
Former premier Jim Prentice promised the helipad in 2014.
Steve Rees, senior program officer with Alberta Health Services, said the department accepts the report's recommendation.
Design work for the project is done and construction is expected to begin in the coming weeks, he said.
Rees said it's hoped the work will be finished before the end of the 2018. Flight operations could begin a few months later pending Transport Canada approval.
"We don't see any further delays at all," he said. "We are really excited about getting it into operation."
Paul Spring, spokesman for the Helicopter Emergency Response Organization in Fort McMurray, welcomed the judge's recommendation.
He noted people in the region have been calling for the hospital landing pad for years. He said it can't come fast enough.
"Time is the killer, and that is what we are fighting," Spring said.
"I had a critically injured patient with an open head wound who was in really rough condition and very close to dying and we had to fly past the hospital to land at the airport to put the patient in an ambulance and take them back to the hospital."
The judge's finding is the only recommendation from the inquiry into the 2007 death of Ge Genbao, a worker from China who died after being injured at the CNRL Horizon oilsands construction site.
He died while being taken to hospital by a ground ambulance. The report said his injuries were so severe it is unlikely that a helicopter would have saved his life.
Spring said the air ambulance service is also used to help traffic accident victims and people with health problems in remote Indigenous communities.
He said it's a shame it is taking so long to improve the service.
"I think it should have happened about 10 years ago."
— By John Cotter in Edmonton
The Canadian Press