CUMBERLAND — Maryland State Police said Friday that hours of operation for Cumberland-based Trooper 5 medevac helicopter would be suspended for the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift until further notice.
The closing of the night shift is not the first.
State police officials have been facing pilot shortages in recent years, culminating in a reduction of service hours in 2018 and early 2019.
The helicopter is based at the Greater Cumberland Regional Airport and its flight staff consists of civilian pilots, which are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. The pilots work 12-hour shifts, with two being required in the cockpit during flights.
Until recently, six pilots had been working in Cumberland.
“Unfortunately, we had a pilot who resigned recently,” said state police spokesman Greg Shipley. “That has forced us to have the (Cumberland) sector to be on operation for the 12-hour day shift for the time being and suspend the overnight shift based on the mission statistics.”
The suspension of medevac operational hours will impact the transport time of critical patients, said Pat Moran, president of AFSCME.
“It’s bad news ... just last night we had a 10-year-old that we had to transport and it took about 20 to 25 minutes,” he said. “If they would have had to use an ambulance, it could have taken up to two hours.”
Rick Bartlett is a pilot currently working in Cumberland. He said the shortage of pilots is behind the curtailment of hours.
“I got the official word today by email,” he said. “We lost our sixth pilot on Friday to the airlines. We have to have two pilots in the cockpit for each of our 12-hour shifts. We can’t do it with five pilots and keep 24-hour service.”
Officials said there was no timeline for restoration.
“The immediate concern is scene trauma,” Bartlett said. “Transporting the patient to a high level of care at a trauma center. The (Western Maryland Regional Medical Center) is a level 3 center. If it is a more complex injury, they have to go elsewhere: Ruby Memorial (Morgantown, West Virginia), Baltimore Shock Trauma Center, and hospitals in D.C., Winchester, Virginia.”
Bartlett said the state should have 70 pilots.
“We have never reached that level,” he said. “We just dropped from 55 to 50. People are getting snapped up by large and regional airlines. We lost 12 alone this year.”
Pilots are in demand across the nation, according to Bartlett.
Bartlett said skilled helicopter pilots are getting lucrative offers from large and even regional airlines. He said although it is not all about money, the salaries and benefits packages are luring pilots away.
Bartlett said hundreds of thousands of pilots are needed in the U.S. in the coming years.
“The pilot pool is graying,” Bartlett said. “The Vietnam-era pilots are retiring. The maximum age is 64.”
Bartlett said he has been trying to urge state officials to hire more pilots.
“The state of Maryland simply cannot compete with that kind of market,” he said. “They have to figure out different kinds of ways to recruit. When you have a shortage of personnel, one way to attract is through the compensation or make the job as attractive and enjoyable as possible. No matter how it is done, it needs done soon.”
Shipley said the mission load had been light in Western Maryland.
“Fortunately, there is not a lot of calls for service (in the Western Maryland sector) and the decision was to suspend that (night) shift,” Shipley said. “We will continue to recruit. We have a pilot that is in training to go to Cumberland and we hope that will happen in the next two months.
“I understand that pilots are in demand, especially helicopter pilots that are able to fly the extra critical missions that we fly. There is a lot of competition (for pilots) but we will continue to work to fill seats. It is a challenge to reach the staffing levels and it has been for some time. We have been saving lives since March 1970. This is our 40th year and we will work to continue our service.”
Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.