Air ambulances play a vital role when disasters hit. Will Legislature fund them?

California. The name alone evokes images of sunshine, beaches and outdoor adventure. But today, it also brings front and center the haunting reality of earthquakes, wildfires and harrowing evacuations and rescues.

The fact that we can expect disasters and emergencies to continue their unprecedented uptick begs the question: How comprehensive is our emergency readiness?

As the state works feverishly to deal with an increasing number of emergencies, we must heed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s compelling call for total preparedness in order to serve 39 million Californians. This means ensuring emergency preparedness resources like air ambulances are accessible to everyone who call this state home.

California experienced more than 30 federally declared disasters in 2017 alone, followed by another 17 in 2018. Already this year, wildfires have burned more than 51,000 acres and multiple earthquakes have rattled our state, including two large-magnitude quakes in early July that led the governor to declare a state of emergency for Kern and San Bernardino counties.

In emergency situations like these, air ambulances play a vital, life-saving role, complementing the necessary firefighting services relied on by everyone.


Following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, for example, the Bay Bridge was closed down when the upper deck collapsed. Thankfully, emergency air ambulances were at-the-ready to get injured people out of downtown San Francisco and to the life-sustaining care they needed.

During last year’s Carr Fire in Redding, air ambulances quickly evacuated at-risk hospitals, including an entire neonatal unit that was transported to the UC Davis Medical Center. They also flew injured firefighters and residents to burn centers for urgent treatment.

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In addition to their vital role in disaster response, air ambulances are an essential part of the statewide emergency response system. They provide life-saving emergency transportation to the most critical patients from car accident scenes directly to trauma centers. In addition, emergency air ambulances provide a crucial link between rural communities and children’s hospitals and cardiac and stroke centers in urban areas.

As emergency responders and firefighters, we must be able to call upon air ambulances to transport the critically injured quickly, especially in hard-to-reach areas. A bill moving through the state Legislature will ensure proper funding for emergency air ambulance services. This important legislation – Assembly Bill 651 – also includes patient protections so they are not financially burdened by the emergency use of air medical transport.

AB 651 would update the Medi-Cal rates that air ambulance providers receive – which have not been updated in more than 25 years – to something closer to the cost of providing the service. The state funding would be eligible for federal matching funds to further offset the funding gap. Absent this type of action, the availability of these lifesaving services is in jeopardy.

Wildfire readiness, earthquake preparedness and emergency response all remain top priorities, and rightly so. The risk to human life is too great. Let’s make sure air ambulances are part of California’s critical readiness and response equation.

Jeff Meston is president of the California Fire Chiefs Association.
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