Southwestern Utah gets medical helicopter
Emergency • Life Flight craft will provide higher level of care in the area.
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St. George • The latest addition to health care in Washington County is red, white and vertical.

During the dedication of the new St. George Municipal Airport last week, Intermountain Healthcare showed off its latest medical helicopter. It went into service Friday.

The Italian-made Augusta is the first medical helicopter based in southern Utah and will allow crews to land in areas that have been inaccessible in the past and retrieve those needing help.

Julie Gerth, head of operations for Life Flight in southwestern Utah, said the helicopter is complemented in the region by a fixed-wing medical plane that has been in service for 20 years but is limited on where it can pick up patients because it requires a runway.

"This [helicopter] dovetails nicely with our fixed-wing operations," she said.

Before, medical helicopters to the region had to be dispatched out of Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.

Gerth said the new aircraft, which will be based at Dixie Regional Medical Center, flies with a crew of three, including the pilot, and is designed to deliver emergency room services and has intensive-care capabilities.

Its crews comprise paramedics and emergency medical technicians from the area, she said.

Teri Draper, spokeswoman for Dixie Regional, said the hospital has been working for seven years to get the helicopter.

"When we opened the new hospital [Dixie Regional] here, we knew a helicopter would give us a higher level of care," she said.

Draper said $2.3 million of the $7.6 million needed to buy the aircraft came from donations from residents of the area.

She expects the helicopter to be used mainly for inter-hospital transportation.

"If someone in Beaver needs heart surgery, they can now be stabilized at the hospital there, then brought to [Dixie Regional] by helicopter," Draper said.

The aircraft will allow crews to rescue injured people in backcountry locations such as Zion National Park and other remote areas.

"We can quickly get an intensive care unit in the air and right to the patient," Draper said.

Kim Rowland, a physician and medical director for Life Flight in southwestern Utah, said the most important life-saving equipment onboard will be Life Flight's crews.

"They have training in how to deal with diverse geographic features as well as in flying at very high and very low altitudes," Rowland said. "And while we are careful about sending Life Flight into dangerous conditions, our pilots still need to know how to deal with some adverse weather."

Russ Thacker, one of the new helicopter's pilots, said it is an exceptional piece of equipment and one of only 40 in the world. "It's been a long time coming," he said.

mhavnes@sltrib.com