The company that transports hospital patients by helicopter in Prince Rupert will change next year, after a provincial agency recently awarded a lucrative air-ambulance contract to Helijet International.
With the decision, the B.C. Ambulance Service replaced VIH as the operator of air ambulance services in Prince Rupert & Vancouver. The contract, which starts April 1, 2011, is worth $94.7 million over eight years, with an option for a four-year extension. The terms stipulate that two helicopters must be based in Vancouver, and one must be available in Prince Rupert.
According to a press release by Helijet, the company will acquire Sikorsky S-76C+ model helicopters for the contract, one of which will be on-call in Prince Rupert 24 hours per day.
“We’re very much looking forward to coming to Prince Rupert,” said Rick Hill, the vice-president of operations & commercial programs at Helijet, in a recent interview.
Hill said there are still a lot of details that need to be worked out before his company takes over the contract next April. He said the company is working on both employment contracts and arrangements to either build or move into an existing hangar. “They’re all still in the works. There will definitely be local employment,” he said.
For a helicopter to run 24 hours per day, said Hill, it needs to have at least nine pilots to run it. That doesn’t necessarily mean all nine pilots will live in Rupert, he said, as they would rotate in and out of their shifts.
Helijet is a publicly-traded company on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX), operating out of Vancouver. According to the TSX’s website, Helijet’s shares were valued at $0.07 on Oct. 28, the day the announcement was made. By November 4, the price shot up to $0.15 per share and has since settled at $0.12 at the close of today’s trading.
The bidding for the air ambulance contract opened in June of this year, and closed at the end of July; three companies responded to the request for proposal (RFP). According to Mike Essery, the director of airevac & critical care transport programs at the B.C. Ambulance Service, VIH was one of the three that bid on the RFP, and had previously held the contract for 23 years. But ultimately, a panel of five people in the industry decided on Helijet.
Essery said the Prince Rupert helicopter transports about 300 patients each fiscal year: in 2007-08, there were 333 patients transported; in 2008-09, there were 351; and in the last year, there were 294. The helicopter, he said, has a range of about two hours outside the Prince Rupert Hospital, which includes the surrounding villages, as well as Terrace and Kitimat. For patients that need extra care in Vancouver, the helicopter takes them from the hospital to the Prince Rupert Airport, where a fixed-wing plane takes them down south.
The contract stipulates the qualifications for the pilots, but not the number of employees, said Essery. He also said the B.C. Air Ambulance Service, which is part of the Ministry of Health, pays a monthly standby fee to whoever holds the contract.
VIH will continue operating the emergency helicopter until the end of March, 2011. Barry Holmes, the marketing manager with VIH, said the contract is actually under Cougar Helicopters, a subsidiary of VIH that was acquired in 2003.
While VIH lost the contract, Holmes said the company has no plans to go anywhere: he said it plans on staying at its home in Seal Cove even after the contract expires.