Neepawa's airport recently played host to one of the Manitoba Health Emergency Medical Services Branch's (MHEMS) newest flight programs for patients in rural Manitoba. On Thursday, Jan. 24, a Twin Otter plane part of the Southern Air Ambulance Inter-Facility Transfer Program touched down around 3 p.m. at Neepawa's airport. An ambulance was waiting on site for the plane's arrival and, after touchdown, paramedics were seen entering and exiting the plane. The entire process from taxiing in to takeoff took only about 30 minutes. And while Prairie Mountain Health's (PMH) regional manager for emergency medical services – clinical standards Neil Gamey isn't able to comment on the specifics of the occurrence in Neepawa, he did note the process is part of a “fairly new program” for rural patients. “The Southern Air Ambulance Program was set up as a pilot program, and is now permanent,” Gamey explained, noting it's run by the Province and not PMH. “Initially it was a trial of air transport for stable patients to try to reduce the time for patients (who otherwise have) to go on the road to Winnipeg for care.” The program is mainly intended for use by rural communities about 2.5 hours or farther out of the city. Neepawa is right on the edge of that 'time-distance' for road travel. The Southern Air Ambulance generally tries to make three to four flights per day, and there is enough space on the plane for four patients, two on stretchers and two sitting. The program is different than the STARS (Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society) program that provides rapid and specialized medical air transport for critically ill and injured patients. STARS helicopters have been seen multiple times in Neepawa in recent years. The Southern Air Ambulance instead provides service to stable patients who are expected to undergo long surgeries. This eliminates the need for them to spend excess time travelling to get care in Winnipeg, and also lessens the burden on local ambulances and paramedics. Last year an ambulance carrying no patients went off the highway near Neepawa after returning from a transfer to Winnipeg with paramedic fatigue being pegged as the contributing factor in that incident. This new air ambulance service should help lessen the highway ambulance transfers needed in the PMH. “It allows us to keep more of our resources in the region; it assists in keeping ambulances in our region,” Gamey said. “It can save three or four ambulances (from transfer trips) with four patients on a plane. It helps us considerably.” The Southern Air Ambulance program originally began as a pilot program in November of 2011.