Travis County's STAR Flight fleet is about to get an upgrade that will help them save more lives.
Since 2006, STAR Flight's EC-145 helicopters have buzzed over Central Texas helping out with fire suppression, transporting patients and providing search and rescue. Beginning in 2018, a new, faster fleet with some serious benefits will take over.
"Increased reliability, less scheduled maintenance in the early life of the helicopter so in theory we'll be up and around more often then we are now," said flight paramedic Erick Ullman.
Ullman added he is excited about the updated GPS equipment that will allow them to fly through fog and low cloud cover like commercial airplanes do.
"We want to be able to fly patients and help people outside of those parameters," he said.
That's because weather can really play a role over long distances, and that's becoming more of a problem as the number of patients outside the service's original 19 counties grows.
Program Director Casey Ping said they sometimes travel to hospitals as far away as San Angelo, Laredo and Crockett. The number of emergency scene calls has fallen below the number of transfers between hospitals since 2013.
"A lot of times those need three or four medical crew members to be able to manage all that and to bring on all that extra equipment," Ping added. "With our current fleet we really can't do that. We can only maximize with three members and again that depends on what the patient weighs and all of that extra equipment weighs."
Each helicopter in the new fleet will carry almost 3,000 pounds more than the current models. The current models will likely be in use until the end of 2018, before being traded in or sold.
Ullman is looking forward to that day the new fleet arrives.
"Now we're gonna have better helicopters, better training and ability to deal with situations that we might have gotten into before but now we'll be able to deal with them much much better," said Ullman.
The contract for the new helicopters was negotiated at $34 million. It's estimated that the service will be able to sell or trade their current fleet for somewhere between $9 and $12 million. That means it will likely cost taxpayers about $10 million.
The price of a ride for STAR Flight patients will not go up.