Whenever anyone hears the distinctive sound of a low-flying, twin-turbine helicopter approaching, lessons stop, and students and faculty alike bow their heads and pray.
Their prayers go to the person being carried by a Flight for Life aircraft to Froedtert or Children's hospitals, because they know that anyone on such a flight is critically ill or injured. But they also give a thought to the air and medical crew onboard.
For 27 years, Flight for Life has been providing emergency medical transport services to the Medical Center and other regional hospitals. The service will likely mark a milestone this month: It is within a handful of calls of having made 30,000 flights without ever having had an accident or major incident.
Safety is everything
Perhaps all those prayers have helped. But it is Flight for Life's commitment to safety that has ensured success.
"It's probably the major focus of this organization," said Jim Singer, transport system director. "It's a conscious effort every day, every hour.
"If we don't do something right, we're putting too many people at risk."
That includes patients, crews and even people on the ground. A large part of Flight for Life's business is rapid transport of severe trauma victims from accident scenes, day or night, year-round, often in remote areas.
The service makes an average of 1,100 flights each year, Singer said, but it also turns down more than 400 a year because of unsafe flying conditions.
Each flight declined or interrupted by foul weather costs Flight for Life revenue and puts a patient at risk, but safety trumps all other concerns, Singer said.
"If it isn't safe to fly, we turn it down," Singer said. "We aren't doing anybody any good forced down in the middle of a cornfield."
When Flight for Life has to turn down a flight, ground transportation takes over, Singer said.
Covering all the bases
Flight for Life, the first medical air transport program in Wisconsin, began with a single helicopter serving the region, making its first patient transfer in January 1984 from Eagle River Memorial Hospital and completing 283 patient flights by the end of the year.
In 1987, a satellite base was opened with a second helicopter at Northern Illinois Medical Center in McHenry, IL, and in 2008 a third base began operating at Fond du Lac County Airport.
Flight for Life now has four helicopters, one at each of thoses bases and one backup, and serves an area stretching from Green Bay to Chicago and inland as far as Madison — although any of the copters will fly much further in an emergency calling for multiple aircraft. (See accompanying map.)
Other air transport services have sprung up to cover most of the region within a flight time of about 30 minutes.
For most of its existence, Flight for Life was based at Froedtert Hospital, and the Medical Center in Tosa is still the primary target of flights. Froedtert is one of only two Level 1 trauma care hospitals in the state, and Children's one of two Level 1 pediatric care hospitals (the others are in Madison).
In 2008, Flight for Life left its Medical Center offices and its hanger on the roof of Froedtert for modern new facilities at Waukesha County Airport/Crites Field.
Refueling on the roof
Other hospitals now receive patients for specialized care, but Froedtert remains vital in other ways.
During a recent interview at Flight for Life headquarters in Waukesha, lead communications specialist Chris Forncrook was monitoring a flight in progress from the Fond du Lac base that had picked up a patient in Oshkosh for transport to St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee.
Once the patient had been delivered, the helicopter was back in the air, but not headed straight home.
"They're on the way to Froedtert to refuel," Forncrook said. "They'll have a full tank in case we get another call while they're still out."
"That was quite a permitting process, I'll tell you, getting a fueling station on the sixth floor of a hospital," said Claire Rayford, one of the original flight nurses and now professional relations and marketing manager and public information officer.
Experience at the controls
Flying crews and equipment are overseen by program aviation manager Vince Freeborn, who started flying helicopters in the Army in 1984 and went on to become a civilian Army trainer and contract pilot for some unusual missions.
"I flew everywhere from Cambodia to Mozambique in Africa, delivering everything from soldiers and medical personnel to diplomats and sometimes potato sacks full of money."
Freeborn showed off one of the newest helicopters in the Flight for Life fleet, a Eurocopter 145 with a "all-glass" digital cockpit array — multifunction screens displaying up to the second weather, terrain and air traffic conditions as well as navigation, communications and flight systems information.
The newest system Flight for Life has installed is night-vision goggles for both aviation and medical crew members.
"It turns night into day," Freeborn said. "Sometimes we even have to tell people on the (accident) scene to shut off lights so they won't interfere."
Expertise in patient care
A typical medical crew contingent for a flight would be Sherry Schmitt, chief flight nurse, and Becca Baron, flight medic. Schmitt had long experience working in hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units before qualifying as a Flight for Life nurse; Baron had 15 years as an emergency medical specialist and then paramedic.
Safety is so important, Baron said, that flight crews are told little about the patient involved until they are well into the air.
"We're all human," she said. "We really don't want to know that it's that 2-year-old child, or anything that would make us think of going beyond the boundaries of safety."
"We fly a multitude of patients from across the age spectrum and every imaginable emergency situation," Schmitt said. "We all think we've seen everything — until we see something we haven't."
Critical thinking skills are the paramount qualification for flight service, she said. "We're smart people. Whatever it takes, we can do it."
LATER THIS WEEK: Patch flies with Flight for Life during firefighter training exercises.