Wednesday, June 9, 2010
Marathon HEMS Shift
I've been wanting to write another Tall Tale all day, but I've been foggy headed until now that it is almost midnight. I could and maybe should go to bed and hope tomorrow will be a better day, but I finally have the "can do" along with the "want to", so I think I'll strike while the iron is hot.
The July 2010 issue of Popular Mechanics found on the magazine stands now has an article starting on page 80 about "Why Medical Helicopters Keep Crashing" titled "Critical Condition" and referred to as unacceptable risk, a Popular Mechanics Investigation. I won't bother critiquing the article here and only brought it to your attention for those that may be interested in checking it out.
I first got involved in medical helicopter flying in the very early nineties. When I was working seismic and utility in the very early eighties 60 minutes ran a show featuring medical helicopter pilots who commonly did 72 hour shifts. The pilots were complaining about being tired all the time. My seismic mechanic referred to them as being a bunch of wusses. When I finally arrived on the HEMS scene 24 hour shifts were the norm, and it took 3 pilots to staff a base. When I finished in 2006 due to being medically grounded 12 hour shifts were the norm, and it took 4 pilots to staff a base. This tall tale is about the 3 pilot, 24 hour shift days.
Adequate crew rest is an important aspect of aviation safety. I've always taken it seriously and while I was flying I dearly protected my opportunity to get adequate rest, just ask my wife. Now that I'm no longer flying it is not nearly as big a deal any more, just ask my wife.
The 24 hour shifts worked around a 9 day cycle. I've heard it also called a Kelly Shift, and the link describes it best like this: Very popular with fire departments and emergency services agencies, the Kelly shift schedule uses three teams (i.e. platoons) and three shifts to provide 24/7 coverage. It consists of a 9-day cycle where each team works one 24-hour shift, followed by 24 hours off duty, works another 24-hour shift, followed by 24 hours off duty, then works a final 24-hour shift, followed by 4 consecutive days off duty. You can replace three teams with three pilots for the HEMS "Kelly Shift" situation.
Pilots working a Kelly Shift are required to have 8 consecutive hours of uninterrupted rest during their 24 hour shift. Uninterrupted rest was simply considered non-flying time. The 24 hour shift is divided into 3 eight hour periods, which set up several possibilities.
Possibility #1: The pilot reports for duty and does not do any flying in the first 8 hours. He or she is now good to complete the full 24 hours.
Possibility #2: The pilot flies in the first 8 hours. The pilot manages to not get any calls during the second 8 hours and subsequently has his or her 8 consecutive hours of uninterrupted rest, so he or she is now good to complete the full 24 hours and can accept flights in the last 8 hours.
Possibility #3: The pilot flies in the 1st 8 hours and in the 2nd 8 hours. He is now considered timed out and his relief pilot is called in 8 hours early without any extra pay back in those days. This pilot will now pull a 32 hour shift if the work load will allow him to get the required amount of uninterrupted rest. If he successfully pulls the full 32 hours the base is now back on track. As far as having to work an extra 8 hours with out pay... Well, the explained it in this manner: "you come in 8 hours early sometimes and you also get to go home 8 hours early sometimes, so by the law of averages it all balances out."
NOTE: a simple 30 minute flight bridging the 1st 8 hours and the second 8 hours legally times a pilot out so that they have to be relieved before the last 8 hours even if that is all the flying they do.
I had a 3 hour commute to the base I worked out of back in those days. A lot of pilots liked to call their relief pilot whenever it became apparent that it was likely they would time out as a courtesy to give them a heads up. Because of my three hour commute this practice didn't work too good for me. I always had my bag packed and ready to go before lying down to sleep. And, I always went to bed early enough so that I would awake with enough adequate rest even if I had to arrive 8 hours early.
I told the pilot I worked opposite to never to call me just to give me a heads up. I told him to just inform dispatch to call me three hours before I had to be there. This normally worked out well for me as long as "Murphy" didn't try to throw any flies in the ointment.
Our normal crew change was at 5pm or 1700 hours for the base this story revolves around. If the other pilot timed out crew change would be at 9am or 0900 hours. That meant I would get a 6am wakeup call so I could arrive 8 hours early without pay to cover a timeout situation.
The marathon HEMS shift I was about to do would be my first shift back after having 4 days off. I had been a little under the weather during this 4 days off, so I decided to go to bed at 9pm which would have given me a full 9 hours of sleep should the 6am wakeup call come because of a timeout situation.
After climbing in bed, I quickly fell sound asleep. It was one of the soundest sleeps I can remember. I was still quite soundly asleep when I heard the ringing of the phone penetrating my deep slumber pulling me back to the conscious world. My brain was already telling me that the other pilot had timed out. Adrenaline was preparing me for my 3 hour commute.
I answered the phone, "Hello".
Sure enough it was the other pilot, "Dave, this is Murphy."
I said, "Murphy? You timed out?"
He said, "No. I haven't timed out yet, but I've just got that feeling that I will and wanted to give you a heads up."
"Okay. Thanks. If you do time out, just tell dispatch to call me at 6.", I said.
He said, "Okay, bye".
I then looked at the clock. It was 11pm. I had been asleep for exactly 2 hours. For the entire rest of the night I lay on my bed staring at the clock. Sleep would not visit me again for a long, long time. It did not matter how much I wanted to sleep, it did not return.
Finally at 4am with only two hours left before I had to get up it was obvious that I was not going to get any more sleep, so I called dispatch to see if Murphy had indeed timed out. He did. I told dispatch that if he should call to ask them to give me a wakeup call to tell him I was already awake. Then I went ahead and got up. I had a nice shower. I then got a good breakfast and Jo awoke and we spent some quality time visiting before I had to leave.
I surprisingly felt pretty good during my 3 hour commute, and relieved Murphy the timeout king at the appropriate time. For some reason working opposite to Murphy things never did seem to balance out in the timing out department. After Murphy left I took care of my necessary duties to insure the aircraft was ready should we get a call.
I lay down and tried to get a nap in. Sleep wouldn't come. I went to bed early that night. Sleep wouldn't come. The flight phone didn't ring until just after 1am. I still had not slept, but I was now good to carry the shift all the way to the normal 5pm shift change time.
You could also timeout if you managed to get a solid 8 hours of flight time. I would come close, but not close enough to prevent me from finishing the shift at 5pm. I ended up flying a whole lot more than the little bit that timed Murphy out because he managed to fly a little in his 1st 8 hours and his 2nd 8 hours, but the way the rules were written I was good to go.
The Army put us through field problems where sleep was scarce and the men who flew in Vietnam did some crazy long hours when the situation required it.
The book "Chickenhawk" by Robert Mason is considered one of the best books describing the flying in Vietnam. I have no first hand experience over there, but Mason describes being so tired that they were bouncing the aircraft in on landings and just laughing about it. I read the book long ago and it might be time to give it another go. I've never got to where I couldn't land steady because of a lack of sleep. The biggest problem with an excessive lack of sleep is the effect it has on a person's judgment skills. When I'm foggy headed, my judgment skills are pretty poor and seem far worse than what I experienced during the marathon shift told here.
I never did get any sleep during that whole shift. We even had a PR (Public Relations) flight scheduled super close to shift change time. By then my eyes were so bloodshot I was embarrassed to take my sun glasses off. After being up all day the day before shift then only getting 2 sound hours of sleep before I was unnecessarily awakened, I was then out flying after being up for 42 straight hours by the end of my shift, but at least I had my 8 hours of uninterrupted rest.
In the helicopter industry "Uncle Sam" has long been considered the tooth fairy because he cranked out so many of us during the Vietnam Era that we are a dime a dozen. Bob Suggs the original owner of PHI once said he could drag up all the pilots he needs from the gutters of Bourbon Street. My salary when I first started EMS flying was less than 20K a year. When I became medically grounded in 2006 it was only 52K a year. It has been fun though for the most part and has provided a plethora of Tall Tales.
Well, I'm glad I managed to crank another tall tale out. Did I tell you how nice it is to have a clear head?
The actual other pilot's name has been changed to Murphy in honor of "Murphy's Law".