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Air ambulance reopens base in western S.D.

Life Flight returned to Hot Springs after being closed in 2019


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By Darsha Dodge
Rapid City Journal

HOT SPRINGS, S.D. — On Father’s Day 2017, Heather Brehmer’s two teenage daughters were on their way to meet their parents at Angostura Reservoir near Hot Springs. Faith, 16, was in the passenger seat and had taken her seatbelt off to apply mascara.

They flipped their vehicle end-over-end.

Faith was severely injured — fractures in her spine, cerebral contusions, internal bleeding and a stroke — when Brehmer and her husband arrived at the scene. Heather — at the time a nurse with Black Hills Life Flight in Hot Springs — knew her daughter was a critical patient.

EMTs that showed up didn’t have the equipment or certification to do what was needed to save her life — but they helped stabilize her until Life Flight arrived from Hot Springs. Heather, helping, called it an “emotional and crazy day.”

“I just...I just prayed to God, please let my daughter live...I just knew she was in bad shape,” Brehmer said.

After two-and-a-half weeks in the hospital, Faith walked away — bruised, but alive. She’s now a mother herself.

“If Life Flight would not have been there to intercept her, I really don’t believe that she would be alive today,” Brehmer said.

That Hot Springs base that saved Faith’s life closed in 2019. Since then, the Rapid City base was the only medical helicopter serving western South Dakota.

That is, until June 7, 2023, when — after lots of research and a powerful presentation — Life Flight returned to Hot Springs.

Operated by AirMethods, the leading air medical provider in the United States, Black Hills Life Flight’s new Hot Springs base partnered up with the Ambulance Service. It’s the only crew in South Dakota where EMS and Life Flight operate in the same building, according to AirMethods Account Executive Darryl Crown, who called it a great opportunity for cooperation.

The building that houses both operations was built only a few years ago with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Hot Springs Ambulance Service Director of Operations Jacki Conlon has been with Hot Springs for 13 years. She said they’re so thankful for all the investment made in South Dakota’s emergency medical services.

“I couldn’t tell you how important all of the initiatives are that Governor Noem and the Department of Health have done for EMS in South Dakota. It’s needed,” she said. “And to be able to be recipients of these cardiac monitors, and do this’s saving lives. It’s really neat to be able to see how everything just kind of keeps on getting better and better.”

During the 2022 legislative session, Noem and state lawmakers approved funding initiatives investing up to $20 million in EMS care in South Dakota.

The shiny Bell 407, parked on a tarmac and backdropped by the luscious green hills, carries a three-person crew — a pilot, nurse and a flight paramedic. Paramedics work 24-hour shifts, and pilots 12. The base has everything they need to feel right at home — sleeping quarters, a kitchen, laundry and lockers plus a common room. Some live locally, others commute from Rapid City.

The helicopter will eventually carry blood — a cooler for which is located inside the base for now — and they can administer it in-flight.

The AirMethods operations control center is based in Denver — a setup so advanced the Federal Aviation Administration based their OCCs on it, a point of pride for AirMethods staff.

Hot Springs Ambulance and Black Hills Life Flight held a ribbon cutting ceremony to mark the grand opening of the base, with South Dakota Secretary of Health Melissa Magstadt Thursday.

“The strategic location of this space is not a coincidence. Hot Springs is a place of breathtaking landscapes,” said AirMethods senior vice president of sales Tony Raymond. “However, it is also a region that presents unique challenges when it comes to accessing urgent medical care. This new air medical base will bridge that gap and ensure air medical critical care can swiftly reach those in need.”

Conlon called the new helicopter “another resource” in the growing area, something that will allow faster response to rural communities dotted across western South Dakota.

Secretary Magstadt was given a full tour of the helicopter and its operations, including putting on a flight suit and trying out all the different seats.

“What’s on the inside of this is an entire ICU,” she said. “Where no longer do you have to wait for the patient to be flown from hospital A to hospital B, but the care is actually taken right to the patient...and it’s initiated before they get off the ground.”

Hot Springs Ambulance also has a new life-saving resource — Avel — which Magstadt got to test-run. Avel is a telemedicine service that connects ambulance crews with board-certified doctors, nurses and clinicians in the field. Once the crew calls, they’re connected through video and audio, helping document care and advising local hospitals of arrival. Conlon said it’s an extra set of hands during a busy, important situation.

It’s part of the funding allotted in 2022. Right now, Hot Springs only has Avel in one ambulance — but they’re hoping to get funding to connect all four of their units.

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