Gridlock on Oahu roadways prompts discussion of re-establishing an air ambulance program

Transporting a patient to a hospital within the first hour of an emergency can mean the difference between life and death.
Published: Oct. 11, 2022 at 3:05 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 11, 2022 at 6:25 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Gridlock on Oahu roadways is prompting discussion about whether to re-establish an air ambulance program on the island.

Transporting a patient to a hospital within the first hour of an emergency can mean the difference between life and death. But officials say as Oahu’s population grows, it’s getting harder to do.

Retired HPD officer Mace Minakawa remembers the day an air ambulance came to the rescue of his brothers in blue.

On April 17, 2001, he was parked in the median of the H-2, looking for speeders, when he saw a white van and a couple of motorcycle officers barreling straight towards him. He says the suspect crashed just feet from his car.

It was rush hour — 4:45 in the afternoon.

A KGMB report that aired on television that day said two solo bike officers had tried to pull over a suspected stolen van that was weaving erratically.

“I was wondering what was going on,” said Minakawa. “Because I didn’t hear anything on the radio.”

As the suspect got out of the van, Minakawa recalled his hands were empty. But in a split second, that changed.

“The wife got out the passenger side (of the van) and threw him the shot gun,” he said. “I seen the blast and then I see him just drop.”

Fellow officer Rob Steiner had been shot.

A second blast struck Officer Aaron Bernal in the face and arm.

The suspect was also shot when Minakawa and a sergeant on scene returned fire.

He remembers the way he felt when he first saw the air ambulance: “To have that helicopter coming over it was like, wow! Help!”

Within minutes of the shootout, the chopper was able to transport both wounded officers to a trauma center where doctors saved their lives.

“Time really is a factor in most critical cases,” said Honolulu Emergency Services Director Jim Ireland. “They historically talk about the golden hour. From the incident — to the time you’re in the operating room ideally is 60 minutes or less.”

For more than three decades, the Army’s Medevac helicopters provided around-the-clock emergency transport services to Oahu’s civilian population.

Towards to end, it conducted about 100 flights a year.

But that stopped in 2006, when the unit that operated the choppers was deployed to Iraq.

Despite 16 years of talk about re-establishing Oahu’s Medevac program, it has yet to happen.

“The population on Oahu is growing, traffic is getting worse. There’s road construction, upgrades. All of these things impede the flow of ground ambulances,” Ireland said.

He says every week, there are up to four calls on Oahu that would warrant the use of a medical helicopter for emergencies like critical car crashes, heart attacks and strokes.

That’s double the number of lifts the Army’s air ambulance was conducting when the program ended.

“We’re talking about North Shore, Kahuku, Sunset Beach, Dillingham Airfield and even some places in Waianae and Makaha,” Ireland said. “Where the ground ambulance is going to take potentially an hour to get downtown — even with lights and sirens. And maybe even longer.”

Oahu and Kauai are the only major islands that don’t have a medical helicopter.

There are two in Hawaii County.

One is operated by the fire department with taxpayers covering part of the cost. The other is run by Hawaii Life Flight a private company that bills patients and insurance companies directly.

Maui Medevac’s chopper also responds to calls on Molokai and Lanai. It’s operated by Reach Air and AMR and is partially funded by the government.

Outside many hospitals on Oahu, old helipads still exist.

Some are fenced off and being used for storage while others turned into parking lots.

To re-launch a program, they’d need to be brought back up to standard. Government would also have to choose an operator to head up the program. You’d need staff as well — paramedics or flight nurses.

Ireland said, “With the number of people you need to put together a program. I think we have them.”

“Medevac over here would be very beneficial,” said Minakawa.

Especially when someone’s golden hour happens to fall during rush hour.

“A lot of places on the freeway there’s no shoulder lane to go,” said the retired officer. “You see the ambulance get trapped.”

Minakawa says he’ll never forget his experience, saying he’s thankful the medical chopper was there.

“We saw this big Army Black Hawk coming down on the freeway,” he said. “It was a big relief.”

As discussions continue on whether or not Oahu needs an air ambulance, officials say when it comes to funding, all options are on the table.

Ironically, the Honolulu Fire Department is in the process of acquiring a $12 million twin-engine helicopter. But there are no plans for it to be used as a medical helicopter.