A helicopter equipped with all the latest medical gadgets and gear has

taken up a station at the Union County Airport, standing ready to

respond to emergencies in town or the countryside.

On June 1, Life Flight Network officially opened for business in the hangar formerly occupied by AirLink Critical Care Transport.

Life Flight Network crews will answer calls for transfers from Grande Ronde Hospital to other facilities in the region, and also respond to vehicle crashes, hiking and hunting accidents, and other emergencies hard to deal with in rural areas.

"We can land on the football field near the hospital, on a mountainside, pretty much anywhere there's an open area," said EMT-Paramedic Raul Marroquin.

AirLink, a fixed-wing air ambulance service, recently terminated its operation in Union County and gave way to Life Flight, a non-profit company owned jointly by St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center and several other regional hospitals.

Life Flight provides air and ground ambulance service from helicopter and fixed wing bases throughout the Pacific Northwest and Intermountain West.

In Oregon, the company has helicopter bases in Aurora, Eugene, Ontario and La Grande.

To further service the region, it has fixed-wing bases in Hillsboro in Oregon and also in Boise, Lewiston and Pocatello, Idaho.

Director of Clinical Services Dominic Pomponio said the rotor wing and fixed wing services support each other. Should the need arise, Life Flight can get an airplane to Union County in a hurry.

The helicopter based in La Grande is a Eurocopter B-3 A-Star. As of last week, it had less than 200 hours flight-time on it, counting the hospital transfer it made during its opening day of La Grande operations.

Pomponio said the chopper is a "workhorse" with advanced life support and critical care capabilities.

"Everything you see on the aircraft is what you'd see in a hospital emergency department. We have some wonderful equipment. We're even equipped with night vision gear," he said.

The crew consists of a pilot, a flight nurse and an EMT-paramedic. Pomponio said personnel are highly trained and pretty much the cream of the crop.

"This is an elite job. You get to fly around in a helicopter and take care of the sickest patients. The competition for these kinds of jobs is pretty stiff. You've got to know your stuff," he said.

June 1, Life Flight workers were still busy setting up living quarters in rooms at the hanger. Pomponio said the base operates like a fire department, with crew members on hand and ready to fly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

At the La Grande base, Life Flight employs four pilots, two mechanics, five nurses and five paramedics.

All are highly trained and well paid, and that, said Pomponio, is good news not only for people in need of medical care but also for the local economy.

"Our payroll brings about $1.25 million a year into the area," he said.

Life Flight is promising Union County a smooth transition from AirLink's fixed wing service to the more versatile helicopter service.

Life Flight will honor all existing AirLink memberships when transporting patients, extending services to multiple air providers in the Pacific Northwest.

Grande Ronde Hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Mattes said the hospital's new partnership with Life Flight will have "profound" benefit to patients by reversing mortality rates for stroke, heart attack and trauma.

"The mortality rates for these types of events in rural areas where access to immediate care is hampered by time is much higher," Mattes said. "It has always been one of the costs of being able to live where we do, but not any more."

In addition to answering emergency calls in the field, the helicopter will transport patients from Grande Ronde to other regional facilities.

Those patients will usually be taken from Grande Ronde to the airport by ground ambulance, but when required, the helicopter can land at the football field and track at La Grande High School, adjacent to the hospital.

The Eurocopter is noted for its quiet operation, a fact that will be appreciated by neighborhood residents.

"We want to provide a good service, but also work with people," Marroquin said.