GUM BRANCH — The LifeStar helicopter based off Highway 196 has been plenty busy already.
But the RVs they were using for living quarters are now a thing of the past, as they now have spacious crew quarters and a hangar to keep their Bell 407 air ambulance out of the weather.
“It’s been great to see the evolution of the base,” said Patrick Lamontagne, southeast region account executive for LifeStar.
In the six months the base has been operating, they have had 40 patient transfers a month, a little more than what officials had projected.
“It shows the importance of having this type of resource in this area,” Lamontagne said. “Since we’ve been open, the blades have been turning.”
“It’s a tremendous moment for everybody here,” said Nick Proenza, regional sales director for Air Methods. “Moments like this don’t happen by mistake. It’s a lot of work and just a ton of time and man hours put in. We’re just extremely excited to be here.
“This is a win — it’s a win for everyone involved. We look forward to partnering with the hospital staff and the local EMS in the surrounding counties and providing a higher level of care for years to come.”
Lamontagne said the base and the crews have been welcomed with open arms since coming to Liberty County.
Getting the new quarters for the crews — crews typically work a 24-hour shift and there are three paramedics and three flight nurses working 24 hours, and four pilots on 12-hour shifts — is a big morale boost for the crews.
“When they have downtime, you want them to be comfortable because when they do get activated, you never know how long those transports are going to last,” Lamontagne said. “It benefits everybody, including the patient.”
LifeStar air ambulances are called in when patients need a higher level of care quickly and also are used for transport between hospitals. The helicopters can carry blood, antibiotics and other medicines not usually found on ground ambulances.
While air traffic is minimal around the base, that’s not the key reason for its location — though it helps.
“We’re flying in any direction,” Lamontagne said.
Should the need arise to fly over Fort Stewart and its firing ranges, crews call ahead and get a safe path charted through the massive base’s airspace.
The hangar also is rated sturdy enough to weather severe storms, up to some hurricanes.
Lamontagne said they noticed a gap when LifeStar 1, based in Springfield, next to the Effingham County EMS headquarters, was out on a transport or was unavailable and a gap geographically.
“As we delved into it and did further research into the need,” he said, “Liberty County and the Hinesville area seemed to be the right spot for us to place an aircraft and for us to position ourselves to assist the community and the first responders in the area.”
LifeStar’s home, off Wells Cemetery Road, came from Shawn Heath and Dr. Daniel Green, who own a tract for remotely- controlled plane enthusiasts.
“It just made sense,” Dr. Green said.
A veteran of more than 20 years in medicine, Dr. Green said medical journals don’t discuss when the best time is to call for flight, i.e., an air ambulance. Dr. Green said even first responders he has talked with have a firm answer on when to call in aircraft.
Dr. Green also said one limiting factor has been expected cost of using flight.
“That’s not true. This is an accessible resource,” he said.
Air Methods, LifeStar’s parent company, developed a patient advocacy program to work patients through the billing process.
The crews and their helicopter are happy to have a new home in Liberty County — and they want to keep that home, Lamontagne said.
“We’re happy to be here. We look forward to being here as long as y’all will keep us,” he said.