Back to Newsroom

4 Ways our Operational Control Center Has Your Back on Safety

by

From a flight request to a post-flight debrief, the Operational Control Center (OCC) at Air Methods has an important role in ensuring that our helicopters take off, deliver, and land safely. With 15-20 thousand active flights each month, clear communication combined with safety measures is a top priority. Often considered the “brain” of air medical operations, the OCC is where decisions are made and safety, customer care, and efficiency are established. Find out the four ways the team in our Operational Control Center facilitate safe, reliable aviation operations for the smoothest patient care experience. 

1. Meteorologists play a key role

Timely weather reports are a vital component for all air medical operations. Having a meteorologist on staff strengthens the ability to observe weather trends and support pilots and crew. Air Methods uses multiple weather applications to gain a well-rounded picture of trends in real-time and long-term. ForeFlight and Sky Connect provide a live radar loop to view current weather patterns and incorporate temperature/dew point ranges, surface winds, lightning strikes, and moon illumination. There is a tracker on each aircraft that allows pilots to stay in touch with the OCC and gain critical flight data information. 

“As many of our flights are fairly short, often a few hours, knowing the current forecasts are crucial to the safe operations of our fleet,” said David Bond, Operational Control Center Supervisor.” 

Another product called StormGeo is a custom-built portal dashboard from the Safety department that provides alerts for events that are further out such as tropical storms, hurricanes, snowstorms, or for visibility issues from wildfire smoke. A color code of green, yellow, and red indicate hazards that have been flagged as potential or imminent danger.  

2. Tracking migratory birds

The most unpredictable issue that afflicts helicopter pilots, yet the most common, are bird strikes. During peak migration season, the number of migratory birds can reach 10 thousand by day and 10 million by night. Improvements in safety features have reduced accidents caused by migrating birds. These include high impact wind screens and strobe lights on helicopters, and migration tracking tools.  

“We use BirdCast, a bird migration tool, for its reliability and easy-to-use map that surveys across the whole country, perfect for the OCC as we’re always monitoring flights across the entire U.S.,” said Bond.

3. Unanimous approval for all patient transports

One additional layer of safety called the “four to go, one to say no” expression includes a four-person team to say yes to taking off on that flight. This ensures that between pilot and clinicians at the base and OCC personnel, all parties have given the green light with four “yeses.” If one person says “no,” the mission is halted. Clinicians make sure patients will be properly cared for in-flight. Pilots go through a preflight risk analysis checklist that includes 25 questions with answers on a scale of 1-5 risk, and it’s a system that has proven to work. 

“I received a call from the OCC on my risk analysis stating that I’d forgotten to check a block,” said Jeff Emery, Mercy Air 5 Lead Pilot. “Glad someone is watching over me!” 

An OCC specialist can approve or decline a flight based on weather and potential hazards of the route. This flight policy is practiced on every route and ensures that everyone is confident in the mission. 

The integration of a preflight risk analysis to the OCC before a flight even takes off, means there are multiple safety checks. “You could call us the fourth crew member who also needs to be comfortable with all aspects that we are able to review before taking a flight.” 

4. Keeping track of every helicopter

There is a phrase used in the OCC – “Eyes on helicopter at all times.” It simply means Air Methods tracks and communicates with every helicopter flight, at all times. Every flight is tracked on multiple maps which have built-in alerts that will signal when a helicopter has gone off course or when weather is imminently approaching. 

“We have communications built into our phone system that allows us to talk to any of our dispatch centers, pilot base phones, radios, and satellite phones within the aircraft if we need to communicate directly to the pilot while they are in flight,” explained Bond. “All of this puts the OCC in an involved position with each flight that takes off.

Constant contact and communication means safer and smoother flights. “I received a call from the OCC asking if I was aware of the weather at my destination and low ceilings,” said Emery. “I explained the landing zone was at sea level and not representative of the airport on top of the island, but thanked them for helping me be safe.” 

The important role our Operational Control Center plays is a critical piece in providing pilots with the information they need when they need it. The technology we’ve incorporated, from meteorological applications that provide real-time reports to maps on migratory birds in flight, allows Air Methods to provide the safest experience in air medical transportation for our employees and our patients.