All of the crew members were brought in from other CALSTAR bases or were new to the air medical field, and the first thing they had to do was adapt to the cold weather, and plenty of snow. The crew also was living in make-shift quarters, but Pond remembers that no one complained.
The first-ever call was an inter-facility transport from Tahoe Forest to Washoe Medical Center (now Renown). Since that first call, the base known as CALSTAR 6 has completed more than 3,000 patient transports.
CALSTAR originally initiated operations in South Lake Tahoe at the request of local fire agencies such as the Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, the City of South Lake Tahoe Fire Department and the North Tahoe Fire Department. Pond recalls that the fire agencies wanted CALSTAR to become an integral part of the California Tahoe Emergency Services Operations Authority (CTESOA.)
Pond believes that CALSTAR was the only air ambulance invited to establish a base in South Lake Tahoe is because the CALSTAR base in Auburn occasionally came into the Tahoe area to assist with patient transports and impressed local fire chiefs with its on-time ETAs and professionalism.
Because the base did not start operations until October 2001, the crew completed what Pond refers to as a “whopping 39 flights for the year.” Flight crews used the down-time to train with all local first responders and hospitals to show them that they now had an option for air medical transport.
In its second year of operation, CALSTAR 6 crews were the first to spot and report several major fires in the area. One was the fire near the gondola at Heavenly that became known as the Loop Fire. Later that same year, crews spotted and were the first to report a fire in a remote area south of Christmas Valley that became known as the Shower’s Fire.
By the fall of the second year, the crew learned that it would be moving into new quarters. Strategically situated in the South Lake Tahoe Airport, crews can respond very quickly to accident scenes or for inter-facility transfers. For instance, according to Pond, the CALSTAR helicopter can be at Barton Hospital within 90 seconds after take-off.
According to CALSTAR Regional Director Tom Pandola, CS6 crews have developed strong relationships with local ski resorts during winter time operations because as the snow falls so do the skiers and boarders. Efforts start early in the season to work with ski patrol personnel to ensure the safety of patrollers, patients and flight crews.
In 2008, CALSTAR 6 crews began working with Sierra at Tahoe and Heavenly to develop the annual Avalanche Dog Days training event under the direction of Flight Nurse Beth Frisby. This event has flight crews working with local avalanche dogs and their ski patrol handlers. Training exercises include loading dog/handler teams into the helicopter and inserting them into the back country to complete the exercise and locate a missing and buried victim.
Pond notes that as winter turns to summer, the numbers of motorcycle, car and mountain bike accidents increase and flight crews are frequently called to assist. Crews also frequently respond to accidents on the lake. He remembers one particular incident where a man was having a heart attack in a remote area near Upper Echo Lake. Once on scene, according to Pond, the crew realized there was no safe place to land near the cabin. They did, however, manage to land on a small island in the middle of the lake. While they were waiting for a fire department boat to take them ashore, a local resident came by and offered them a ride. The crew got the heart attack victim back to the helicopter and minutes later he was at a hospital receiving appropriate treatment.
Pandola said that several years ago CALSTAR 6 was contacted by the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC) in Bridgeport, CA to assist with training exercises based on their need for consistent response times and standards. Since that time, CALSTAR 6 has become MCMWTC’s first request when air medical evacuation is needed for injured troops.
CALSTAR 6 has also established a strong working relationship with the El Dorado Sheriff’s Department and its search and rescue teams. Many times a year, flight crews assist teams with finding lost hikers. CALSTAR performs these missions as a community service.
Over the years, CS6 has utilized various helicopters – most recently a dramatically upgraded Eurocopter BO-105. The aircraft features twin Rolls Royce C-30 engines, and a super lifter kit was installed on the aircraft this past spring. According to Lead Pilot Kris Hunt, CALSTAR 6 pilots consider it a “true dream machine” for the mountains.
CALSTAR is the largest nonprofit air ambulance provider on the west coast. Its bases cover a vast area throughout California and Northern Nevada. CALSTAR utilizes what is considered the “gold standard” for flight crews - a pilot with 3,000+ pilot-in-command hours and two highly trained and experienced trauma nurses.
Being flown in a medical helicopter can be costly—upwards of $20,000. As a nonprofit organization, CALSTAR offers affordable coverage through its membership program. An annual fee of $45 covers an entire household.
If a member is ever flown, CALSTAR will accept the member’s insurance reimbursement as payment in full. For more information on membership, individuals can call 1-888-207-LIFE or visit the company’s website at www.calstar.org.
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CALSTAR is a nonprofit air medical program serving California and Northern Nevada. Our mission is "to save lives, reduce disability and speed recovery for victims of trauma and illness through rapid transport, quality medical care and education."