EDITOR'S NOTE: A Daily Mail reporter was invited to shadow the flight crew at HealthNet Aeromedical Services during a recent medical mission.
When emergency situations arise, every second counts and time is of the essence.
Employees at HealthNet Aeromedical Services understand this and when the tones are sounded, the focus turns to the mission and the patient.
For some HealthNet employees, saving lives and responding to life-threatening situations is not a job -- it's a calling.
Thomas Reed has been a medic with HealthNet for 27 years. He joined HealthNet in 1986, the same year the nonprofit was founded. He said he loves what he does and doesn't consider it a job.
"It's more of a calling," Reed said. "I couldn't see myself in any other profession. Being able to help people who are acutely injured or who are in critical condition brings joy to my life."
HealthNet allowed me to job shadow their pilots and flight medics for 36 hours. In that time, I was briefed on aircraft safety, as well as patient care. I was provided with a flight helmet and traveled alongside the crew.
HealthNet is one of a few statewide hospital-based air medical services in the United States.
There are eight bases that are located in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Each base is responsible for providing service in a 150-nautical-mile radius. The life-saving service is funded by three of the state's largest hospitals -- Cabell Huntington, Charleston Area Medical Center and West Virginia University Hospitals.
Reed was part of the original flight crew. Since joining, he has assisted with nearly 4,500 patient-related missions.
"I've seen how HealthNet has changed over the years," Reed said. "We provide a better level of care today than we did years ago. Our flight crew has an incredible amount of knowledge and we have a young fleet of aircraft with state-of-the-art capabilities."
Reed said hospitals use HealthNet to transport patients when time is of the essence and when critically injured patients need specialized care to survive.
HealthNet officials say the service provides reduced transport times to area hospitals and employs expert medical crews. Because of the state's mountainous terrain and winding roads, it can reduce transport times by several hours -- hours that may be critical in saving patients' lives.
For example, transporting a patient from Minnie Hamilton Hospital in Calhoun County to CAMC's Memorial Division, as the crew recently did, would take 90 minutes via ground transport. The flight took about 15 minutes.
I shadowed employees at the Ripley base, or Base 2. The crew there services both CAMC divisions and on average, receives about 50 medical-related missions each month. Before HealthNet expanded and added additional bases in the state, that figure was near 70.
In order to be hired by HealthNet, the medics and nurses must have years of experience working in fast-paced emergency environments, such as the emergency room or as a paramedic assisting with ambulance runs.
Ronnie Cobb is only 29 years old but has 10 years of experience with emergency response. He previously worked as a paramedic for the Charleston Fire Department before HealthNet hired him in February.
Cobb is the humorous one among the Ripley HealthNet crew. He seems to keep everyone entertained and there's never a dull moment when he's working. Each crewmember has their own personality and the crew appears to be like one big family.
"We're a team and we spend so much time together," Reed said. "We talk about our families and football games during our down time and I'm sure everyone here would agree that we all enjoy each other's company."
Although the Ripley crew services a 150-nautical mile radius around Ripley, they oftentimes find themselves venturing to other parts of the state and transporting patients to some of the state's hospitals, as well as hospitals in Columbus, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Lexington.
HealthNet has two new aircraft on order and when those aircrafts replace older aircraft currently in service in Ripley and Buckhannon, the average fleet age will be 2.5 years.
Reed said the capabilities and instruments of the new helicopters would help the mission.
The entire fleet of HealthNet helicopters is IFR capable, meaning their aircrafts can now safely operate in more limited visibility and in a manner more closely associated with commercial airline operations. However, only the aircrafts in Morgantown and Beckley are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly using the IFR operational model. Pilots have to go through specialized training and obtain clearance to fly using IFR.
"IFR capable aircrafts are allowing us to fly in conditions we could not fly in before and that is definitely an asset to HealthNet," Reed said. "The utilization of night vision goggles help tremendously, especially when flying the helicopter at night. I remember the days when things were unaided."
At the start of each 12-hour shift, the pilot briefs the flight nurse and medic regarding weather conditions, possible obstacles the crew may face, the amount of fuel onboard the aircraft, among other procedural things. The briefing usually takes 25 minutes and both the flight nurse and medic can voice any concerns or ask questions.
"The pilot is in control of the aircraft and is in command of every mission we have," Reed said. "It is important that we listen to the pilot. We operate as a coordinated crew. Both the medic and nurse look out both windows in the back of the aircraft and will let the pilot know if we're clear to take-off and land or if there may be any obstacles in the way."
After the briefing, the flight nurse and medic check out the aircraft and make sure it is fully stocked with equipment.
Jessica Fidler, a flight nurse who has been employed with HealthNet for three years, said it's extremely important to make sure the aircraft has the supplies needed.
"Even if there were no missions during the previous shift, we still check to make sure we have everything we need," Fidler said. "It's better to be safe than sorry."
The flight crew demonstrated to me how to get in and out of the aircraft, how to make sure the doors are correctly latched, how to operate the communication system inside the aircraft and how to handle emergency situations if they were to occur during our missions.