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Rega – Swiss Air-Rescue, to home page

How bits and bytes help Rega on its missions

In order to provide professional medical assistance by air around the clock, nowadays not only specialised staff and state-of-the-art aircraft are required, but also reliable solutions in the field of information and communication technology.

How can cutting-edge technology be used safely to help even more people and further improve patient care?  This question has been the driving force behind Rega’s activities ever since it was founded. The pioneering achievements of earlier Rega generations, such as the first direct rescue from the north face of the Eiger using a rescue hoist or the first civilian use of night vision goggles, were perceivable and easy to explain. However, many present-day developments that open up new possibilities for Rega crews and support them on their missions are less tangible. This is because they stem from the use of the latest information technology. For example, the satellite-supported instrument flight procedure, which enables helicopters  to fly along predefined flight routes  in poor visibility, is based on digital data. The use of IT solutions pervades all areas of Rega – from the cockpit of the rescue helicopters and ambulance jets to the medical care of patients, to the Operations Centre, hangar and administrative offices. The following examples illustrate how IT supports Rega employees in their everyday work.

Digital tools in the hangar

In the Rega hangar, automated and digitalised processes support the aircraft mechanics in their work and  help to minimise the downtime of the Rega fleet. They also make maintenance and repair work safer  and more efficient. So what does this mean in concrete terms? It is rather  like servicing a car: 15 years ago,  a car mechanic solved many problems “by hand” with a spanner and the necessary dexterity. Today, in the workshop, a modern car is first of all connected via an USB interface to  a diagnostic laptop, which reads the data and enables errors to be analysed. Something similar happens with the new H145 rescue helicopter: at the end of a day of missions, the pilot removes a tiny memory card from the aircraft and inserts it into the laptop at the helicopter base. A programme reads the data and stores it on a server. This automatically available digital data provides information on the helicopter’s current “state of health”. In this way,  it is possible to identify the wear and tear on the material, as well as the helicopter’s maintenance requirements, and to determine when, for example,  a rotor blade needs to be changed. Or another example: in future, Rega helicopters will be automatically connected to the Rega network via Wi-Fi as soon as they have been towed into the hangar at one of the 12 Rega bases. Thus the software will be able to automatically update the navigation system in the cockpit with the latest information on aeronautical obstacles, which pose a serious threat for the helicopter crews when out on a mission. Currently, this update still has to be done manually. In future, this automation will not just save time, which the crew can use for other tasks, but also increase safety, for the crew will automatically always have access  to the very latest data relating to aero- nautical obstacles. 

The “heart” of Rega

Another example of how ultramodern information and communication technology helps Rega to fulfil its core  task is the complex linking of various systems and IT solutions in the Oper- ations Centre, the “heart” of Rega.  It is here that the flight coordinators take emergency calls around the clock and organise around 17,000 missions in Switzerland and abroad every year. For nine years now, the Rega app has provided a means of raising the alarm based on the transmission of digital data. The app helps save invaluable time in an emergency and has proven itself in thousands of cases: the location of the person raising the alarm is transmitted directly to the dispatch system at the Operations Centre and displayed on the digital map. 

Coordination of the Rega helicopters

Generally speaking, the countrywide coordination of Rega helicopters places different demands on a dispatch system than it would to deploy ground-based rescue teams. After it is called out, an ambulance operates almost completely autonomously and usually within clearly defined regions or cantons. However, this is not the case with air rescue: the helicopters know no cantonal borders and operate over several regions. The crews are guided through their missions and continually supplied with information by the Operations Centre. Thus Rega’s flight coordinators can ensure a greater degree of flight safety, particularly at night – by informing the crew about other airspace users, for instance, or by providing them with up-to-the-minute meteorological data from Rega’s own weather stations.

The helicopter dispatch system

Last year, the dispatch and communication systems at Rega’s Helicopter Operations Centre were modernised. Thanks to the combination of a standard solution and components that have been specially developed for Rega, the helicopter flight coordinators are now better supported in their demanding work than ever before. Diverse informa tion that is particularly useful to the flight coordinators can now be displayed directly on the digital map – meadow  or locality names, hiking trails, paraglider landing sites or bike trails can all be shown quickly and easily on the map. The coordinates of the accident site, the reason for deployment and the contact person for the crew are then transmitted directly into the cockpit with a mouse click. In addition, thanks to the newly developed communication system, flight coordinators can now easily and intuitively listen again to specific parts of an alarm call – for example, to make sure that they have understood everything correctly. Rega’s nationwide radio network is also seam- lessly integrated into the modern com- munication system, allowing crews  to be contacted direct at any time. Close collaboration with the various operation partners involved, such as the cantonal ambulance call centres, is of key importance for treating patients swiftly. Particular attention is already being paid to interfaces that allow the various dispatch systems to be interlinked, so that in future the rescue services can work even more closely together for the benefit of their patients. In particular, Rega regularly invests in the latest technology relating to raising the alarm and deploying the rescue crews because it is convinced that these investments will have a direct impact on improving the provision  of medical care by air.

Doctors also use apps

Software is used not only in the Operations Centre, but also outside at the accident site. Mobile applications support the Rega emergency physicians in caring for their patients. For example, if necessary, it can be used to look up special drug dosages, such as for the treatment of very young children. Another app for Rega’s physicians  is currently undergoing intensive testing and is scheduled to be introduced this year: the electronic patient report. What used to be written by hand on a piece of paper will now be able to be done digitally using an optimally designed  user interface. The physician documents the situation on location and the treatment carried out by the Rega crew.  The advantage of the digital report is that the electronic data is available imme diately and in a clearly legible form – for further treatment of the patient in hospital, but also for invoicing and archiving. 

Expansion of the scope of operations

Many of the digital solutions in use at Rega optimise existing systems and equipment. They help to simplify processes and heighten security. However, there are also solutions that expand Rega’s scope of operations and thus enable it to help more people in need. It is thanks to the latest IT and communication technology that Rega is able to realise its vision of all-weather air rescue, step by step. For the satellitesupported approach to a hospital helipad is only possible because an instrument flight route can be calculated on the computer and redundant, high- precision navigation instruments in the helicopter “know” where it is in three- dimensional space at any given time. Rega pilots can call up the current weather data, which is a prerequisite for flying under instrument flight rules, directly via a special weather app for pilots, which has been developed on behalf of Rega. At what altitude is there a risk of icing? How low is the cloud cover? What is the visibility range at the destination hospital? Regardless of whether the pilots are at the helicopter base or checking the data on the move before directly heading off on another mission – they always have to hand the necessary information to prepare and conduct the flight efficiently and safely. Information technology also plays a key role in the development of the Rega drone, which in future will be used as an additional tool to search for missing, injured or sick persons.

The highest of demands

With all the possibilities and oppor- tu nities that are offered by the rapid development in technology, the ever progressing digitalisation poses a huge challenge. For just as Rega makes the highest of demands on the safety of  its aircraft, materials and staff, it must also critically examine and test new technical solutions before they can be put into use. Rega’s activities in the fields of aviation and medicine do not tolerate any mistakes and they are highly regu lated. The development  and introduction of new technical solutions and systems in Rega’s work- ing environment is correspondingly complex. Here the 12 specialists in Rega’s IT department are called upon to find sensible and proportionate solutions that at the same time meet the highest of standards in terms of security and availability and can be implemented at a reasonable cost and effort. 

People remain at the centre

All of Rega’s further developments and innovations in the field of technology have one thing in common: it is not  a matter of simply following a trend or  overturning established practices. Technical advances should much rather have a positive impact on patient care. Many years ago, Rega’s founder, Dr. med. Rudolf Bucher, formulated a guiding principle that still rings true today: “Complete assistance is only to be accomplished if the best staff training and the best material resources are successfully merged to form a highly effective whole”. This statement may date back a number of decades, but its substance is as current and valid as ever. Nowadays, however, digital support should also be added to the “material resources” used by the Rega crews. Even if digitalisation continues to increase in importance, at Rega it will never push people into the background. On the contrary: only in collaboration with the crews, mechanics or flight coordinators can IT specialists ensure that innovative solutions support the crews on their missions – and thus help people in distress more quickly and reliably than ever before.