Collier County’s MedFlight cleared of one complaint but still under investigation

— Some of the turbulent weather has finally cleared for Collier County MedFlight.

But calm skies may still be far off.

On Friday, Collier County officials released the findings of a Federal Aviation Administration investigation into MedFlight’s practices.

The investigation had been prompted by a complaint filed in February by a former part-time MedFlight pilot.

In a three-page letter to Collier County Bureau of Emergency Services Director Dan Summers, the FAA concluded that MedFlight was not in violation of the federal agency’s operational control regulations.

What does that mean for MedFlight? That depends on who is asked.

“The FAA has concluded that the allegations raised by Sheriff’s Deputy Dwaine Parker were groundless,” said Summers in a statement Friday.

Parker said Friday that Summers spoke too soon.

“I am troubled by the fact that Mr. Summers would mislead the citizens of Collier County by issuing a premature statement prior to the conclusion of the FAA investigation,” said Parker, referring to another investigation currently being conducted by the FAA into mechanical safety violations. “This investigation is still on-going, a fact that Mr. Summers is fully aware of.”

The original 13-page complaint was filed by Parker on Feb. 12, and asked the FAA for a probe into a series of operational and safety concerns about the MedFlight program, including issues about organizational changes that were made several years ago without making changes to the general operations manual for the MedFlight program, according to the complaint.

Parker, works full time as a pilot and deputy for the Collier County Sheriff’s Office, and had taken a part-time job with MedFlight. The helicopter transport program of sick or injured patients is operated by the county’s Emergency Medical Services. Parker no longer works for EMS.

One of the complaints raised by Parker, was that Jeff Page, director of EMS, was unduly exercising operational control authority at MedFlight when he has no aviation experience or training.

During bad weather, the complaint says Page ordered all flight medics to be removed from the aircraft if a flight could not be made and reassigned to a ground unit, therefore placing the helicopter out of service.

According to FAA aviation safety inspector Armando Lopez, who wrote the March 30 letter that cleared MedFlight, Page only exercised authority over MedFlight paramedics, which was neither an FAA issue nor a breach of FAA regulations.

The letter said investigators also concluded that when the EMS director technically grounded flights during adverse weather conditions he enhanced aviation safety “by removing the pressure from the pilot to try and operate in marginal weather conditions that may be unsafe.”

In response to the findings, Parker said there were several areas of concern relating to the safety of MedFlight in addition to operational control, which included improper maintenance procedures and practices.

Another issue Parker raised in his complaint was that flight medics were fearful of expressing safety concerns because of past administrative sanctions that had been imposed on colleagues who voiced concerns.

The issue was one of three areas in the FAA’s letter where the agency recommended Collier officials seriously look at making improvements.

“Due to our conversations with various individuals in your organization, it looks that the main problem is a fear on the part of some as to the consequences of their expressing dissatisfaction with some of the aspects of your management team,” Lopez said in the letter. “This could possibly create an atmosphere not conducive to a safe operation.”

Parker said he was glad the FAA singled out the issue as one of the main items for the county to address.

“That’s a fact,” said Parker, of the report’s comment. “No one will speak at EMS in fear of loosing their job.”

According to Summers, the county has started to take steps to implement some of the FAA’s suggestions, which include tweaking MedFlight’s general operation manual.

“The FAA team made some helpful recommendations and suggestions for additions to our operations manual as a professional courtesy,” said Summers, in a written statement. “We are drafting a project management plan to implement the suggestions they offered.”

As for the open FAA investigation that Parker cited, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said on Friday that it remains an open investigation.

During the course of the FAA investigation into Parker’s complaints, FAA inspectors discovered that Collier County Helicopter — through which MedFlight operates — operated a helicopter that was beyond its mandatory scheduled maintenance on multiple occasions.

“It would also be hard for me to believe that the FAA thought my safety complaint was ‘groundless’ after the FAA found MedFlight completed 168 flights in which critical parts on the helicopter were not inspected prior to flight as mandated by the FAA (Airworthiness Directive),” Parker said adding that failure to conduct those inspections put the crew and aircraft at risk of catastrophic failure, which would have been deadly. “I believe the prudent thing for us to do now would be to wait for the FAA to finalize the complete investigation.”

In 2006, 91 flights were completed while a helicopter was in non-compliance, according to FAA documents. In 2007, 77 flights were flown while the helicopter was in non-compliance.

“That whole matter is still under review,” Bergen said.

The issue was briefly mentioned in the March 30 letter, as well as in an additional two-page letter sent to Summers strictly dealing with the apparent violations.

Summers responded to the FAA in a letter this week and said Collier County Helicopter’s previous director of maintenance told him that the issue had been resolved during a previous visit by the FAA.

He added that the agency started an automated maintenance tracking system in 2007 and would institute additional safeguards to avoid a similar situation.

© 2009 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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