A helicopter company that’s been assisting with emergencies in the Fort McMurray area for 20 years, is expanding its Medevac helicopter services and pushing for funding help from the province.

Paul Spring, the owner of Phoenix Heli-Flight, says the Medevac helicopter is needed to assist in emergency situations in remote areas of northeastern Alberta.

Since 1992, Spring’s company Phoenix Heli-Flight has been working with the fire department to provide emergency medical care, but their current choppers can only fly during the day – a limitation that could mean the difference between life or death.

"Anybody who gets injured in a remote area, needs Medevac services from a helicopter after 2 p.m. in December, we're not going and we can’t go again until the sun comes up the next morning,” Spring said.

“There’s a huge area where people are exposed. Even in the summertime there’s exposure.”

New helicopter a result of years of planning

Spring has been working for years to acquire funding from the province for a new $6 million Medevac helicopter that would be equipped with night vision goggles and specialized equipment like a rescue hoist.

“Our plan was to get the government to fund a medical program, help us financially with what we need to do to get to a day and night operation. After working in collaboration with doctors in town here, making proposal after proposal, 10 years later we haven’t got any action,” he said.

"They've had 10 years to come to the table since we've first pitched a proposal for a dedicated machine here and they haven't responded with anything but studies.”

Currently, Alberta Health Services has a contract with Phoenix on a fee-for-service basis, but the new Medevac helicopter would work round-the-clock.

To purchase the aircraft, modify it for ambulance work, and hire and train new employees, the company is looking at a cost of about $235,000 a month, each year.

Spring is moving forward with the proposal – fronting the money himself, and hoping the government and area businesses will pitch in.

“We’ve taken our resources and put it a deposit on a new aircraft,” he said.

“We can’t derive any other income from this aircraft other than Medevac but we don’t know how many Medevacs we’re going to do a year so we can’t build a business case for it. This has to be a funded aircraft whether it’s funded by government, industry or a collaboration of government, industry and fundraising in the community.”

No access roads for ground ambulance

Darby Allen, acting chief with the Fort McMurray Fire Department, says many of the traumatic injury calls that come in are in areas that have no access roads for ground ambulance.

"We've been to incidents with Paul where he's landed and we've had to hike in a kilometre and half to get the patient, so it’s a remote area,” Allen said.

“The Medevac services are the best way of dealing with a lot of those situations.”

Allen says a new Medevac helicopter would make a huge difference in the region.

He says STARS air ambulance does not send its helicopters up in the area, so Phoenix Heli-Flight is the municipality’s sole emergency helicopter response provider.

“We don’t rely on any one else. We rely on Phoenix,” Allen said.

“Paul has been good enough to have a helicopter with a pilot available for us. I don’t remember a time when we’ve asked for assistance and he’s said no. He goes out on a limb sometimes and he’s going out on a limb with this one and we appreciate what he’s doing for us.”

Spring says Stars will soon have the capability to fly north but stresses the importance of time.

"If we can respond from Fort McMurray and be at a patients’ side in 20 minutes, why would you wait two hours and 10 minutes to get a machine from Edmonton to come up?” he said.

A representative from the Minister of Health’s office tells CTV News the government is prepared to look at alternative models for emergency medical care in the area, but says a decision would have to be made with AHS and industry.

A growing region

Spring says the need for a 24/7 Medevac helicopter service is growing as the region continues to be developed.

“As the region expands, we’re getting further and further from town, further from established transportation zones, and they’re at risk. If they get hurt during those hours when we’re not allowed to fly by regulation, we cannot attend the scene, we cannot help them,” he said.

Spring hopes the government will come forward and help fund the Medevac helicopter.

He adds there has also been some interest from oil companies interested in funding the service.

Spring says the new helicopter will ideally be built and ready for use by the fall.

With files from Veronica Jubinville