In 1978, Kalispell’s A.L.E.R.T. air ambulance was in trouble. Established two years earlier following the death of a logger injured at a remote job site, the helicopter service was proving to be an expensive operation to maintain. A group of local citizens and supporters decided to come together and establish a support foundation and hold an annual banquet.
Forty years later, the fundraiser and air ambulance service are going strong. The 40th annual A.L.E.R.T. banquet will be held at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on April 21.
“It’s always a really great time,” said Bob Sandman, A.L.E.R.T. advisory board chairman.
This year, organizers are hoping to raise about $300,000 to cover the cost of a brand new helicopter that was purchased last year. Tagen Vine, A.L.E.R.T. foundation president, said the new chopper is the air ambulance service’s fourth since the 1970s; on average, the aircraft last about 10 years.
The new helicopter is identified as N407VS. The “VS” is in honor of Velinda Stevens, the late president of Kalispell Regional Healthcare who died last year. The new helicopter cost about $4 million, and generous donors have paid for much of it, although a little more money still needs to be raised.
A.L.E.R.T.’s previous helicopter — the crews don’t like to call it “old” because that would hurt her feelings, so they prefer to call her the “legacy” helicopter — will remain in Kalispell as a backup aircraft. A.L.E.R.T. also has a fixed-wing plane for patient transfers.
In A.L.E.R.T.’s 42-year history, the air ambulance has saved 1,525 lives. The helicopter goes on 400 to 500 missions annually, often to remote locations that can’t be reached by a vehicle in a timely manner. A.L.E.R.T. also has the distinction as being the first rural air ambulance in the United States.
Sandman said the A.L.E.R.T. service will become even more important when Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s new pediatric center opens next year. Montana Children’s Medical Center will likely increase the number of patient transfers between Kalispell and other hospitals.
Vine said the root of A.L.E.R.T.’s success is community support.
“This is a unique area. We have a lot of people who work in the woods and play in the mountains,” he said. “There is just so much support for this program in the community.”
The A.L.E.R.T. Banquet begins at 5:30 p.m. on April 21 at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. The event features a dinner and silent and live auctions. For additional information, visit krh.org/alertbanquet. For tickets, call Lori Alsbury at (406) 752-1710.