A panel looking into Maryland's Med-Evac helicopter needs is recommending that the state buy two more sophisticated French-built Dauphins for around-the-clock service in Southern Maryland and on the upper Eastern Shore.
At a meeting yesterday in Annapolis that began unexpectedly with a tense exchange between an impatient Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, Steinberg predicted that if state officials move quickly to find $10 million for the twin-engine helicopters, both could be operating in less than a year.
The state currently maintains a fleet of nine Dauphins at six bases around the state. The extra three are used for backups and spare parts.
The expensive helicopters, which can fly 160 mph, are essential to the state's air Med-Evac program, which tries to deliver seriously injured accident victims to emergency medical care within the so-called "golden hour" in which there is the best chance of saving their lives.
Steinberg, who chairs the Maryland Executive Helicopter Advisory Committee, said outfitting with Dauphins existing bases at the Patuxent Naval Air Test Center in St. Mary's County and the State Police barracks outside Centreville in Queen Anne's County would improve response and delivery time in the two regions.
"Transport in the golden hour is not a reality" for many people who are injured in Southern Maryland and on the Eastern Shore, said John Lang, an analyst for the committee.
The two areas now are served by slower single-engine Bell Jet Rangers, which are prohibited from from night or bad-weather flying because of safety concerns.
Backup service with Dauphins from bases in Wicomico County, Prince George's County and the Baltimore area is not always available in time if the Rangers are grounded, said Lang.
The panel's recommendation came at a scheduled meeting, at which Schaefer surprised committee members and spectators by showing up unannounced and berating the group for what he said was its failure to keep the issue from becoming a "political football."
Residents and legislators from the two rural areas had been pressing Schaefer to provide equal Med-Evac services ever since the Rangers were restricted to daytime duty.
"I don't want to play games," Schaefer told the shocked committee as an exasperated Steinberg repeatedly and pointedly insisted that the panel was scheduled to make a decision on the helicopter issue momentarily.
Schaefer threatened to make the panel meet weekly until it came up with a recommendation. "If you don't do it today and I read about this, I'll call you back if I'm not happy," he said.
After the governor left the meeting, Steinberg attempted to relax committee members with his signature humor.
"A lot of action today," he quipped. "We'll have to bring the governor in more often to stimulate you guys."
Del. Timothy F. Maloney, D-Prince George's, who sits on the panel, later said the governor's surprise appearance had no effect on the committee action because a decision had already been scheduled.
"This item was on the agenda," Maloney said. "It's a little like showing up at sunrise and demanding that the sun come up."