CUMBERLAND — A shortage of pilots and paramedics has grounded the Maryland State Police Trooper 5 helicopter, based at the Greater Cumberland Regional Airport, on most nights from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Rick Bartlett, Trooper 5 pilot and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3675 that represents Maryland State Police civilian employees, said a shortage of staff has altered the medevac helicopter schedule.
In July, state police officials said they expected to add eight pilots in late August or early September.
“Well, here it is October and it should come as no surprise that they have been able to hire only one new pilot since then,” Bartlett said.
A second new hire pilot resigned after less than a month on the job, Bartlett said.
“So we remain down by at least 13 pilots (full staffing is 70) and the result is that they now have to severely restrict the hours-of-service at two of our seven bases — Cumberland and Easton,” Bartlett said.
The two helicopter bases are shut down most nights from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., due to lack of pilot staffing and trooper-paramedics.
For the 28-day period from Sept. 26 to Oct. 23, Cumberland had a staffed night shift for only seven nights, according to Bartlett.
“We had an $11 million helicopter sitting idle in the hangar from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. on the remaining 21 nights of the month,” he said.
Trooper 5 is used for law enforcement response and search missions in addition to its medical calls.
“Trooper 5 at Cumberland is the only helicopter in the region with an installed rescue hoist and hoist-trained crews to affect an aerial hoist rescue from rivers, dense forests and cliffs,” Bartlett said. “Many of these hoist rescues we have performed at night, especially during hunting season.”
Bartlett said the Trooper 6 helicopter at Easton is now out of service at least 13 nights of the month, as well as several day shifts, for the same reasons — lack of personnel to staff it.
Bartlett said staffing problems for the Cumberland base won’t improve next month.
“I feel personally distressed that my own family traveling in Western Maryland is left without airborne EMS most nights of the month,” he said.
Bartlett said the answer to the staffing shortage is more involved than monetary compensation.
“I can assure you as the union local president representing our civilian pilots, that there are many other non-economic reasons that human resources cannot attract and retain our pilots,” Bartlett said.
No missed missions
Maryland State Police spokesman Greg Shipley responded to a Times-News inquiry about Trooper 5’s reduced availability.
Shipley said since Oct. 1, staff shortages at the Cumberland base resulted in Trooper 5 not being staffed during the night shift on 19 days.
“During these periods, no calls for medevac missions in Maryland that could have been responded to by Trooper 5 were missed,” Shipley said.
Shipley said Trooper 5 crews completed 22 missions during the hours of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. from Jan. 1 through Oct. 23. The missions consisted of nine medevacs, six search and rescue flights and seven law enforcement flights.
“Our union has put forth numerous proposals with very little cost that would improve the work culture in Maryland State Police Aviation, but most have fallen on deaf ears,” Bartlett said. “Unless and until some of those work-life issues are addressed, I fear we will continue to bleed pilots to other more attractive careers, eventually threatening the future of a public safety organization that has been serving Maryland since 1970.”
Maryland State Police helicopters are Augusta Westland AW-139 models that have been in service since 2013 in replacement of Eurocopter Dauphin helicopters. The Trooper 5 helicopter is staffed on each flight by two pilots and two medical-fight personnel.
Trooper 5 serves Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties in addition to responding to mutual aid calls in nearby West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Maryland funds the medevac program with a special surcharge on state license plates. There is no charge to patients.
Shipley said the Maryland State Police Aviation Command has a memorandum of understanding with commercial providers that cover the Western Maryland region. Those providers respond to calls for medevac service if Trooper 5 is unavailable under the state’s integrated medical services system.
Filling the void
Shipley said “ideal staffing” for 24-hour coverage at each of the seven MSP helicopter bases is 10 pilots and 10 flight medics.
Currently, there are five pilots and five flight medics on active duty at the Cumberland airport.
“We anticipate an additional pilot returning from extended medical leave in December,” Shipley said. “A pilot recently selected for a promotion to pilot in command is undergoing required Aviation Command training and will be assigned to the Cumberland Section around the first of the year.”
The remaining three pilot vacancies are being filled from an active eligibility list of qualified pilot applicants, Shipley said.
He said five trooper medic candidates currently undergoing training at the Maryland State Police Academy will be assigned to the Aviation Command upon completion of training.
The Maryland State Police Aviation Command is continuing its active recruitment of pilots and flight medics. There are currently 14 helicopter pilot vacancies and 17 flight medic vacancies statewide. Information can be found at https://mdsp.maryland.gov/Organization/Pages/SupportServicesBureau/AviationCommand/Careers.aspx.
Follow staff writer Jeffrey Alderton on Twitter @alderton_jeff.