EC air ambulance tender raises red flags

 

Eastern Cape health department’s R110m helicopter air ambulance contract has sparked controversy. File photo.
Image: 123rf.com/Jaromír Chalabala

Controversy surrounds the Eastern Cape health department’s awarding of a three-year R110m helicopter air ambulance contract for emergency medical response and patient evacuation to a small KwaZulu-Natal flight services operator.

The contract took effect on October 1, with the new service provider’s aircraft arriving in East London early Thursday. They have been declared “mission ready” by the department.

But tender specifications — including a requirement for a winch on the East London-based aircraft to facilitate offshore rescue missions — appear not to have been followed by the service provider, a consortium of KwaZulu-Natal-based Black Eagle Aviation, which secured the bid in a joint venture with Leli Investments.

Existing service provider National Airways Corporation’s (NAC) eight-year contract lapsed on September 30 after the department’s emergency medical service (EMS) finally awarded a tender which has been outstanding since June 2018.

The EMS contracts the helicopter ambulance service from the private sector over a three-year term, with the service provider stationing one helicopter at each of the EMS bases in East London, Port Elizabeth and Mthatha.

But red flags have been raised after the two major air rescue service providers in the country — NAC and non-profit organisation SA Red Cross Air Mercy Services (AMS) — were sidelined in favour of the consortium.

AMS, which is highly regarded because of its medical outreach work into inaccessible rural provinces and missions to bring critically ill children to hospitals, has asked the department for details of how the tender was decided under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

This was confirmed by the organisation’s Farhaad Haffejee.

Industry sources approached by DispatchLIVE claimed this week that Black Eagle Aviation which “does not own one helicopter”, did not have the capability to operate the service.

“There are so many complexities in this tender and the equipment required is enormously expensive,” one source said.

Black Eagle was awarded a similar contract in KwaZulu-Natal. It was overturned after an appeal by AMS, with the appeal panel finding discrepancies in tender submissions.

Black Eagle director Segran Govender confirmed the company was on site in the Eastern Cape but refused to answer any further questions, referring DispatchLIVE to the department.

Health department spokesperson Siyanda Manana said all three helicopters brought to East London overnight by the new service provider were “mission ready”.

Individuals with knowledge of the tender process first spoke to the Dispatch in 2019 over their concerns that underhand processes were being followed.

The tender was re-advertised in June 2018 but kept being extended until the department cancelled it on October 8 2019.

A month later, a new bid was advertised, with a compulsory pre-bid meeting on November 20 and an initial closing on December 3, which was extended to January 28 2020, followed by a second pre-bid meeting on January 16.

NAC CEO Martin Banner would only say on Thursday that the company had a “very successful collaboration” with the department and would “always be on standby to come and assist if things don’t work out like they hope it will”.

When DispatchLIVE visited the EMS base in Vincent, East London on Wednesday, there was no sign of a handover by NAC to the new operator.

However, by Thursday morning three aircraft, identified as Eurocopter Squirrel helicopters by a technical expert consulted by DispatchLIVE, were parked at the base.

According to updated tender specifications issued on November 28 2019, the service provider must offer helicopters configured as air ambulances to enable emergency medical response and patient evacuation service by air.

The helicopter cabin must accommodate two paramedics, the patient and — in the case of a neonatal baby — the mother, apart from the pilot.

All three helicopters must be fitted with flotation gear, rescue harnesses and specified medical devices. The unit based in East London must be fitted with a winch.

The contract also specifies the helicopters must be branded with the “star of life” logo, the universal symbol of emergency medical care, and with other Eastern Cape EMS branding.

The helicopters seen by DispatchLIVE on Thursday appeared to comply with few of these requirements. An aviation expert who commented on photographs of the aircraft said at least one was more than 20 years old.

Under both the NAC and Black Eagle contracts, the service provider must make available a helicopter and crew for a minimum of 30 hours a month at each base. This structure allows the service provider to offer services to non-EMS  patients with cost recoveries to accrue to the EMS.

In the disputed KZN tender, which finance MEC Ravi Pillay wants restarted, Black Eagle was found to have submitted an aircraft maintenance certificate in the name of East Coast Aviation (ECA).

This certificate was out of date, Black Eagle did not establish it had a contractual relationship with ECA and there was no indication ECA, ostensibly based in Cape Town, could provide maintenance services for aircraft across KZN.

By Ray Hartle

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