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24/7 emergency helicopter service coming to Whiteside County

OSF's Life Flight service will bring 24/7 emergency medical helicopter transportation to rural communities along the I-88 corridor.

ROCK FALLS, Ill. — In a medical emergency, every second counts — which is why OSF Healthcare is bringing its 24/7 emergency helicopter service to Whiteside County Airport.

Once the program is implemented, physicians, hospital personnel, emergency medical services, fire personnel, police, emergency management agencies and 911 dispatch centers will be able to request a Life Flight. 

The goal is to give rural communities quicker access to larger hospitals than a traditional ambulance.

"Long ago, aircraft were stationed at tertiary care centers," Vice President of OSF Healthcare Kathy Devine said. "But the idea is that really we need to be in the communities. Because that's where the access is needed. It's being closer to the patients where they're at."

OSF Healthcare currently operates Life Flights out of Peoria, Peru and Galesburg. Devine says the Whiteside County Airport was chosen because of its close proximity to the I-88 corridor, making it a central part of the region. That'll allow OSF to travel to multiple rural communities, like Rockford and Sterling. 

According to Google Maps at the time of publication, it takes about an hour-and-a-half to two hours to drive from the Whiteside County Airport to OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria. With the helicopter, that'll travel time is cut by over a third.

"I mean, if you can imagine yourself in the worst time of your life, and know that there is no quick way to get where you need to go," Devine said. "That's what we're about."

For the Sauk Valley Aviation owner Darin Heffelfinger, it makes sense to him to have an air transport system in rural communities. 

"It just makes more sense to come to where your customer base is, and the customers are out here in the rural area."

Sauk Valley Aviation manages the Whiteside County airport's day-to-day operations. 

"If the neighbor guy has a stroke, and if OSF can get them to their facility in Peoria within one hour, they have a really good chance of recovery," Heffelfinger said. "You know, where that wouldn't be the possibility around here."

He adds that he hopes OSF will be able to use the space at the airport by Oct. 1, but it depends on when construction beings and finishes. 

Whiteside County Airport Board President Monty Vankooten says new jobs will be added because of this project that includes pilots, nurses and mechanics.

"There's going to be 16 full-time jobs created at this with this project, between the pilots and their staffing, which is fantastic for the community."

He estimates that when the airport's Life Flight base is operational, at least one pilot, two nurses and a mechanic will be on call at all times.

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