Featured: Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra, left, and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortéz, on Wednesday, January 2, 2019 during a photo session soon after Cortéz took his oath of office during a ceremony held in the Hidalgo County Commissioners Court room, located on the 1st floor of the Hidalgo County Administration Building, 100 E. Cano Street in Edinburg.
Photograph By EVANA VLECK
Helicopter emergency ambulance service by Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med will play crucial role in area law enforcement’s duty to save lives, says Hidalgo County Sheriff Guerra
For those who have never been to Hidalgo County, with its population estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau to be rapidly approaching one million, many would think of it as urban area, meaning
it has a high population destiny, and with it, the infrastructure and resources that come with big city life – such as fast and safe access to sophisticated, life-saving emergency medical care.
But for Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra, whose law enforcement department is responsible for protecting about 500,000 people, as well as properties, in a vast rural region, he emphasizes there are many people in the Texas’ seventh most populous county (860,661 as of 2017) who would face struggles getting to a hospital quickly enough during a life-threatening crisis.
“When you talk about the ‘Golden Hour’, it’s going to take more than an hour to get these patients to a medical facility to begin treatment,” Guerra said of the time it can take for an emergency ground ambulance to reach, then transport to hospitals, gravely-ill or seriously-injured people in rural, sometimes remote, areas of the county.
The “Golden Hour” was first described by R. Adams Cowley, MD, at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. From his personal experiences and observations in post-World War II Europe, and then in Baltimore in the 1960s, Cowley recognized that the sooner trauma patients reached definitive care— particularly if they arrived within 60 minutes of being injured — the better their chance of survival.
Emergency ambulances are vehicles which provide care to patients with an acute illness or injury. These can be road-going vans, boats, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft.
“If we have a medical emergency incident in the rural areas, the response time for a ground ambulance takes a lot longer in Puerto Rico, which is a small community in the northwest part of the county, or in the Linn/San Manuel/Hargill areas, or in any of the ranch lands,” Guerra said.
So it was with great relief for the sheriff when leaders for Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med on Monday, February 18, 2019, said they were finalizing a plan to provide helicopter (formally known as rotor) emergency air ambulance service to area hospitals, an announcement that came soon after Air Evac Lifeteam in McAllen immediately ceased operations on Thursday, January 31, 2019.
Air Evac Lifeteam had been operating from McAllen Medical Center since its October 2011 opening, according to an Air Evac Lifeteam press release distributed to media outlets in the Valley.
“In the past, we have enjoyed having a helicopter emergency air ambulance,” Guerra said of Air Evac Lifeteam, which had served Hidalgo County since October 2011. “I was very, very concerned, and so happy that now, Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med is stepping up to provide emergency air ambulance service for our county.”
Restoring helicopter (formally known as rotor) emergency air ambulance service to Hidalgo County is the right thing to do, said Kenny Ponce, President/CEO of privately-owned Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med.
“We anticipate to launch a helicopter emergency air ambulance service within the next 90 to 120 days,” Ponce estimated. “It’s something we have been working on the past several months to ensure that this community has this type of service. In the meantime, we do have two fixed wing (aircraft) ambulances for emergency flight service to and from the Valley.”
Helicopter (rotor) and fixed-wing aircraft typically play very different roles. Helicopters can be seen as substitutes for ground ambulances, because they can land almost anywhere. They typically serve patients in true emergency situations, where quick access to a trauma center is literally a matter of life and death.
Because airplanes are less flexible about where they can land and take off they are typically not used to transport patients from the scene of the emergency to the hospital. They also have a much longer range than helicopters do, so they can travel farther distances without refueling. Yet they can still offer life-supporting care for patients who are critically ill or injured. So fixed-wing air ambulances are more often used to transport patients from one hospital to another.
Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med have more than 100 ambulances, wheel chair vans, supervisor units, as well as a communications bus used for disasters, and a special operations trailer equipped for mass casualty incidents, and two fixed wing Beechcraft King Air 90 air ambulances dedicated to emergency transfers.
Paul M. Vazaldua, Jr., Vice President of Organizational Leadership and Government Affairs for Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med, said the region’s residents are fortunate to have the largest EMS (emergency medical service) company south of San Antonio with the vision to make helicopter emergency air ambulance service available.
“Hidalgo County EMS services 90 percent of Hidalgo County residents, from pediatric to geriatric patients – and every person in between. We think of everyone. We always remember, ‘What if it is my baby or my grandma who needs ambulance service?’” Vazaldua said. “We deeply care for all families. It is this high level of dedication to life-saving public service that inspires Hidalgo County EMS and its sister company, South Texas Air Med, to move forward with this initiative to provide helicopter emergency ambulance service.”
Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med has 430 highly-trained staff members, basic/advanced paramedics, certified flight paramedics, registered nurses, and support personnel.
“We bring the unmatched abilities to promote, extend, and save lives in the Rio Grande Valley, a major metropolitan region with an estimated population of 1.4 million residents or more,” Vazaldua said. “We pride ourselves on EMS (emergency medical services) training. Our experienced men and women are ready at a moment’s notice to provide top quality care and support services for our patients and professional associates. Our EMT B/A and Paramedic staff are highly skilled and participate in training and refresher courses on a regular basis.”
For motorists and passengers involved in major accidents on the county’s interstate and state highways and roadways – in both urban and rural areas – the severe traffic backups that often occur can make it difficult for an emergency ground ambulance to swiftly get to victims and transport them to the nearest hospital.
“I have seen it first-hand in the San Manual area, where traffic is backed up for miles. It can back up easily, especially on weekends, on a Friday, during the holidays, when there is a lot more traffic and accidents happen,” Guerra recalled. “These accidents could potentially have instances where it does back up, pretty regularly, three to five miles, and that challenges those ground ambulances to get around them. There are also safety concerns.”
A helicopter emergency air ambulance can be a life-saver in many situations, not just those involving major vehicle accidents.
“I remember I was in charge of security at the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show (in Mercedes) and we had a bull rider get hurt, and we had to call an air ambulance to get him safely transported to get medical help,” he added.
Guerra has even seen the need for helicopter emergency air ambulances in Texas’ most populous city.
“Even in some of the metropolitan areas, there will be a need for helicopter emergency air ambulance, because they get to the scene faster, and once they are at the scene, they transport that patient to the medical facility that has the best capabilities to treat that patient faster,” the sheriff reported. “You see it in the bigger cities. There was a major incident inside Houston where they landed two helicopter emergency air ambulances, where they actually were treating the patients.”
Although ground emergency ambulance services were readily available to respond, law enforcement officials at the scene made the decision to call in helicopter emergency air ambulances.
“They knew that the quickest response would be the air ambulance. They had five (law enforcement) officers shot, and they had multiple helicopter emergency air ambulances there to transport those injured officers,” Guerra said.” We also want that same comfort knowing that if one of my deputies, or any peace officer, is shot, to have that ability to transport them to a medical facility in the fastest way possible. That can only be achieved with a helicopter emergency air ambulance.”
Undocumented people – which include women and children – entering the United States and crossing through Hidalgo County using the most hidden paths in their dangerous journey – are another significant group of people who can run into serious trouble.
The importance of helicopter emergency ambulance services are recognized by the state and national governments.
“We receive calls about immigrants who are out in the ranch areas who are severely dehydrated, and they call on us because they are dying, and we have to get them to a medical facility,” Guerra said. “Many times, that has been achieved through the helicopters of the U.S. Border Patrol and the Department of Public Safety. When they find them, the put them on their helicopters and get them to a medical facility.”
Otherwise, it can take up to 30 minutes for sheriff’s deputies, using four by four vehicles, “just to find those victims, much less get them to hospitals, whereas by giving the helicopter ambulance the GPS coordinates, they are there to pick them up and save lives,” the sheriff noted.
Vazaldua said Guerra’s views as the top law enforcement officer in Hidalgo County carries great weight and wisdom.
“I had an initial conversation with the sheriff about the need for rotor (helicopter) emergency ambulance service, and I asked him to give his perspectives as the county sheriff, because there are so many people who live in the rural areas,” Vazaldua said. “This type of service is needed, and combined with the recent comments that Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortéz made about the undercount of the population, provide the public a better understanding on why Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med are engaged in this project.”
Cortéz, during a late February 2019 presentation before the Governmental Affairs Committee of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce, said Hidalgo County has significantly more population than the latest federal estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortéz says if everyone in his county is counted during Census 2020, the population will be close to 1.2 million, not the current 860,000, according to the Rio Grande Guardian.
“Cortéz brought with him a map of the county showing lots of yellow and red areas,” the Rio Grande Guardian reported, with an image of that map showing many of those undercounted areas located in rural Hidalgo County.
Vazaldua reflected that “many people have asked why are we doing this if other national companies have failed in Hidalgo County. The best response is there is the need, and we have to come together as a community and build an emergency medical service system that will have all of these facets.”
2019 SOUTH TEXAS ALL HAZARDS CONFERENCE MARCH 27-28
The seventh annual South Texas All Hazards Conference was scheduled for Wednesday, March 27, 2019 and Thursday, March 28, 2019 at the McAllen Performing Arts Center and McAllen Convention Center.
The South Texas All Hazards Conference is the second largest training conference of its type in Texas and is the only conference offered at no charge to the invited participants. More than 3,000 emergency responders and ancillary staff are expected to attend.
“Recent events have shown us that emergencies can come at any time and from any source,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortéz. “Hidalgo County and its regional partners have made great strides in emergency preparedness by working together and sharing resources. The All Hazards conference and the free training it provides to emergency responders is an excellent example of the collaborative spirit that makes us stronger and better prepared for anything.”
The theme, “Faces of Preparedness – The Human Factor,” honors the men and women who leave their homes to respond to emergencies.
“Disaster knows no city limits or jurisdictions,” said McAllen Mayor Jim Darling. “This conference, and more importantly, the cooperation that already exists between local, state and federal agencies, emergency responders and government entities here in the Rio Grande Valley demonstrates the professionalism, training and readiness and most importantly, the compassion that is here on a daily basis and more so during emergency situations. The All-Hazard conference only solidifies that commitment to our region and our state should the need ever arise.”
The conference follows the National Incident Management System (NIMS) in organization and execution, which has become a model for others. NIMS is a standardized approach to incident management developed by the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate coordination between all responders. Hidalgo County Public Health Coordinator Nancy Pearl Treviño and Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo “Rick” Saldaña will serve as Incident Commanders during the conference. Even the more than 70 volunteers from Idea Academy and South Texas Training Center received training in the Incident Command Structure in order to follow protocol.
“In this day and age, we must take every opportunity to train, not only our first responders, but also the support staff, in the unified command structure because during an emergency NIMS ensures that crucial information is communicated,” said Saldaña.
The conference is split into six educational tracks:
• Public Health and Hospitals;
• Emergency Response;
• Law Enforcement;
• Educational Institutions;
• Faith Based and Non-Profits; and
• Continuity of Operations Planning for Business (COOP ).
More than 70 presenters were scheduled to participate from the Texas Division of Emergency Management, U. S. Custom and Border Protection, National Weather Service, Texas Department of State Health Services, Texas Department of Public Safety, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Union Pacific Railroad, Coast Guard, FBI, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other federal, state, local and non-profit agencies.
In addition, there was an Immunization Summit for clinicians also organized as part of the conference.
Due to NIMS protocol, the workshops and training sessions are not open to the public.
Julia Benítez Sullivan contributed to this article. For more information on the helicopter air ambulance service, please contact Paul M. Vazaldua, Jr., Vice President of Organizational Leadership and Government Affairs, at 956/451-6775. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).