BARRHEAD – Woodlands County has received a request to renew the municipality’s annual $3 per capita contribution to STARS Air Ambulance, which experienced challenges with fundraising during the COVID-19 pandemic, over the next four years.
Glenda Farnden, senior municipal relations liaison with STARS, made the request during a presentation to Woodlands County councillors at their May 11 meeting.
Farnden, who works with rural and urban municipalities across the province and in northeastern B.C., said Woodlands County has been a longstanding supporter of STARS, having provided a $3 per capita contribution to the non-profit organization in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.
"We very much appreciate your continued partnership and your leadership,” Farnden said.
Farnden’s presentation delved into what has been going on with STARS, which she noted is still following strict COVID protocols and is taking a slowed approach to re-integration of support staff.
On average, STARS flies an average of eight missions per day from their six bases throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. COVID-related cases account for one in five of those missions, though Farnden noted they are also seeing an increase in missions related to stress or that have a mental health component (heart attacks, drug overdoses and so on).
An average of 13 missions are flown out to Woodlands County each year, which Farnden noted represents approximately $100,000 in service annually.
“All in all, it’s a testament to the value of our partnership, because your residents have access to STARS in their daily travels whether they’re here at home or (abroad),” she said.
Farnden said STARS receives about 32,000 emergency requests each year, but the STARS helicopters aren’t flown out to each of those calls; the air ambulance is only dispatched for critical situations or when there are special circumstances like a patient in a remote area.
While STARS crews sometimes travel with ground ambulances or Alberta Health Services’ (AHS) fixed wing aircraft, their transport physicians also conduct virtual consultations with health care workers in hospitals all over western Canada.
“Regardless of how a patient may be transported, whether it’s by ground ambulance or by AHS fixed wing or STARS, it’s our transport physicians that are providing the medical oversight and guidance on those critical calls,” she said.
Regarding the finances of STARS Air Ambulance, the COVID pandemic affected revenue streams in all areas, particularly in fundraising and the ability to hold events (which prompted downsizing of some staff).
The STARS Lottery, which is their single largest source of fundraising, surprisingly sold out in 2021, but they have had challenges with their STARS Calendar campaign.
She noted they also created a multi-provincial radio-thon that proved to be hugely successful and which they hope to continue in the future.
COVID also posed a different challenge beyond fundraising: making it harder to acquire parts for the aging fleet of helicopters, which were already difficult to find due to some parts no longer being manufactured.
Ultimately, STARS was prompted to replace the fleet with nine new H145 helicopters at a cost of $138 million. (A tenth helicopter was also purchased to cope with the increased volume of missions, though it will be paid for with the sale of the old helicopters.)
This massive purchase was funded through a contribution of $65 million from the federal government, $26 million from the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments, and $47 million in donations from individuals, businesses and municipalities.
On the subject of government funding, Farnden noted that in March, the Alberta government committed to increasing its contribution to STARS from 20 per cent of its operational funding to 50 per cent.
This was as a result of the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) review, which also recommended the province look at new air ambulance legislation and name STARS as a dedicated service provider.
However, the province has not yet increased its financial contribution, and Farnden suggested that it may not happen until next year.
In the meantime, STARS must rely on the financial support it receives from municipalities like Woodlands County, Farnden indicated, noting that 90 per cent of rural and urban municipalities contribute to STARS in varying amounts.
Most contribute $2 per capita, though some give as much as $90 per capita in recognition of their increased reliance on air ambulance services. The MD of Greenview is one such major contributor, as they provide STARS with $210,000 annually.
Noting he was fortunate once to participate in a STARS rescue a number of years ago, Coun. Peter Kuelken asked if they received any funding from the oil and gas sector, or corporate donations in general.
Farnden indicated they have significant investment from the private sector, noting there are some oil and gas companies who pay for their own private landing sites on a temporary or permanent basis.
Reeve John Burrows asked what the range of the new H145 helicopters would be. Farnden replied that the new helicopters are more fuel-efficient and can fly for about 30 minutes on top of what the old helicopters were capable of.
Coun. Devin WIlliams, who is a firefighter, commented that he also had the privilege to work with STARS a number of times and he appreciated the service very much.
While county councillors accepted Farnden’s presentation for information, a decision was not made that day whether or not to continue the county’s financial contribution.