Firefighters and other certified first responders in emergency situations soon will be able to authorize the launch of a helicopter because of a recent change in an Aiken County internal operating policy. The change will take effect on Wednesday.

Previously, first responders could request a helicopter to be on standby through the Aiken County Sheriff's Office dispatch center. But the chopper couldn't leave the ground until an Aiken County EMS shift supervisor authorized the aircraft's takeoff.

“We are continually looking for ways to get better patient care out there during an emergency,” said Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian, who discussed the new helicopter policy in a telephone interview on Sunday afternoon. “This was just something that we felt like we needed to go ahead and do, and that's why we are doing it.”

According to Killian, Aiken County officials sent a notice about the change to “all the fire chiefs and first responders” in the County late in the afternoon on July 19. The new operating policy won't take effect until Wednesday because the delay “will give all our EMS shifts a chance to rotate through and the fire departments a chance to meet with their folks and develop any internal policies that they need for their procedures for getting a chopper into the air,” Killian said. “We needed to give people time to get prepared for it and talk about how they are going to handle it. But if a fire chief makes a call on Tuesday (to launch a helicopter), we're not going to say, 'Wait a minute, the new policy isn't in effect yet.' We are going to go ahead and do that (launch a helicopter).”

The change in the helicopter policy followed a fatal accident involving a toddler on July 4 in Wagner. Ryan Eagerton, 2, was pronounced dead at Richland Memorial Hospital in Columbia after being struck by a vehicle at his home.

Wagener Fire Chief Mark Redd and others complained about how the situation was handled and called for a change in Aiken County's emergency response policy involving helicopters. According to Redd, the first responders in his crew were more than qualified to call for a LifeNet helicopter. If they could have authorized a launch, Eagerton could have been transported to the hospital more quickly, Redd maintained.

“I don't know if it would have made a difference, but in my honest and professional opinion, he (Eagerton) didn't get the chance that he deserved,” Redd said.

Following Redd's appearance before City Council on July 16, “we met with him and discussed some of the options,” Killian said.

“Obviously, there has been a lot of thought since the tragedy on July 4,” Killian continued. “We had heard of problems with the policy before – at least perceived problems. We didn't know whether they were true or not, but we were already looking at the policy.”

Aiken County EMS will continue to be responsible for medical decisions after it arrives on the scene of an emergency and its personnel will make the decision about “how the final transport (of a patient) takes place, whether it is ground or air,” Killian said.

If a helicopter has been launched “and we (Aiken County EMS) decide when we get there that it doesn't make sense, we'll cancel the helicopter,” Killian said. “But this way (by letting first responders authorize a launch), the helicopter gets in the air a bit sooner and is on the way quicker. If we need the chopper, so be it, and, if we don't need it, we'll deal with that, too. Hopefully, in situations where a helicopter is truly needed, it will get in the air a couple of minutes faster than has been happening in the past.”