Kalispell Regional Hospital's ALERT airlift team protocols change with covid-19 outbreak

Kalispell Regional Healthcare ALERT crews respond to several hundred helicopter rescues each year, with the summer months being the busiest for these first responders. 

Whatever the emergency call may be, Kalispell Regional Healthcare's ALERT team has to be prepared for anything. 

"Everything from neonatal patients to the elderly, [we're] prepared to do whatever needs to be done," Flight nurse Brian Stewart said. 

Stewart has worked as a flight nurse for eight years. He said some days his team could respond to anywhere from five to seven emergency calls in a 24-hour shift. His colleague and lead flight paramedic Chris Sobin said they respond to numerous wilderness related rescues.

"We see more bear attacks in this emergency room than any other emergency room in the lower 48 [states]," Sobin said. 

Daron Larson, whose worked as a helicopter pilot for 25 years said "people come here not prepared to be in the Rocky Mountains that's where we come into play." 

The ALERT team is typically made up of a flight nurse, flight paramedic and pilot. When the call comes in, these three need to get off the ground ASAP.

"13 minutes off the ground from the time we receive a call," Sobin said. 

Limited space, limited resources and time-sensitivity make the job difficult, add covid-19 to the mix to make it all the more challenging. 

"We're wearing personal protective equipment. We wear [full-body] gowns, gloves and eye protections on every flight," Sobin said.

Sobin added that his team carries a lot of equipment and every pocket in their flight suit uniforms have something in it to make their job easier in the helicopter, however, with covid-19 protocols, it makes the job more difficult.

"It's a small space on the helicopter, so you don't have the space to dig through your equipment bags. You lose all your access to that in an isolation suit," Sobin said. 

Kalispell ALERT has two helicopters they used to transport patients. The helicopter responds to about 350 calls a year. The crew can fly a 150 mile radius and they can go to Spokane, Great Falls, but they stop at the Canadian border. 

Aviation Director Chris Miller said ALERT goes on roughly 200 trips on their fixed wing plane. If the weather is poor, the plane is safer to take. It can also fly much further distances. They often transport patients to Minnesota, Colorado and Washington State. 

The jobs of these healthcare heroes have no room for mistakes, and they are constantly putting their lives at risk by flying, but crew members said it's all worth it for the folks in the community.

"The people here support us, support one another and it really does speak volumes," Larson said.

"We wouldn't be in this business without the support of our community, we're a community supported organization," Sobin said.

"Serving people in need, sometimes really dire need, is really rewarding at the end of the day, Miller said. 

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