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Ontario air-ambulance service buried call for tenders, interim CEO says

An air ambulance helicopter lands at Toronto Island airport on Jan. 27, 2012.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The province's air ambulance service shut out bidders interested in designing the medical interiors of its new helicopter fleet by publishing a request for competitive tenders where it would not be found, the service's interim chief says.

Ornge posted the request for expressions of interest in a place that had nothing to do with helicopters or their interiors, documents show. The contract appeared in the "Communications, Photographic, Mapping, Printing and Publications Services" category on MERX, the central website for federal and provincial public tenders.

Ron McKerlie, interim chief executive officer of Ornge, acknowledged in an interview on Friday that Ornge didn't run an open and fair bidding process for the multimillion-dollar contract.

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"I'm just learning today it was posted under a category that would have made it difficult for I guess any reasonable person … to find it," he said.

Ornge ended up with medical interiors that are rife with problems. If the situation cannot be resolved quickly, Mr. McKerlie said, Ornge will put its old fleet of helicopters back into service. In the meantime, he has asked the Canadian aviation company that complained more than two years ago about not having an opportunity to bid on the contract to help retrofit the interiors.

A design flaw places patients too close to the ceiling in the cabin of the helicopter, restricting paramedics attempting to perform life-saving CPR on patients. Mr. McKerlie has logged long hours grappling with the problem since the government asked him to assume the helm of Ornge two and a half weeks ago. The senior bureaucrat said he expects to miss "date night" with his wife every Wednesday for the foreseeable future.

"This is our top priority," he said. "It's absolutely critical that we solve this problem."

Under the leadership of former chief executive officer Chris Mazza – who is on indefinite medical leave and remains on the payroll – Ornge spent $148-million on new helicopters to replace its aging fleet of Sikorsky S-76s. It spent another $5.6-million on custom-designed medical interiors.

The new helicopters were supposed to provide the best possible care for patients and fly longer distances in any weather conditions. But they have not lived up to their billing. The medical interiors are so jam-packed with equipment that the helicopters exceed their maximum allowable weight with a full tank of fuel, according to aviation sources. As a result, they cannot fly with a full tank and can travel only slightly farther than the old fleet, the sources said.

James Mewett, president of Airtech Canada Aviation Services Ltd., the country's pre-eminent designer of medical interiors, complained to his MPP that his company had no opportunity to compete for the contract. Airtech designed the interiors of the Sikorsky air ambulance helicopters used in Ontario for more than 30 years. It has also designed interiors for air ambulances in other provinces, including British Columbia and Nova Scotia.

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"We kept a close eye on MERX for activity," Mr. Mewett says in his letter dated Aug. 31, 2009, to Liberal MPP Jeff Leal, adding that he missed the opportunity to bid because of the "extremely obscure" place where the request for tenders was filed.

His complaints fell on deaf ears. Mr. Leal forwarded Mr. Mewett's letter to then health minister David Caplan, who responded that Ornge is responsible for all aspects the province's air ambulance operations.

"I have taken the liberty of forwarding your letter and [Mr. Mewett's]correspondence to Ornge for a response," Mr. Caplan said in a letter to Mr. Leal.

Mr. Caplan and Mr. Mewett both declined to comment for this story.

The contract was awarded to Aerolite, a Swiss company that has worked on the AgustaWestland 139s that Ornge bought. Ornge officials were also actively involved in customizing the interiors, the sources said.

Mr. McKerlie plans to meet next week with officials from Airtech as well as Aerolite to see if they can suggest ways to fix the problems.

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Mr. McKerlie confirmed on Friday that Ornge purchased 12 helicopters from Italy's AgustaWestland. Ornge had previously disclosed that it bought 10. Two of the helicopters have never been brought to Canada or outfitted as air ambulances, he said. They are up for sale in Pennsylvania.

"They were purchased with the idea of making quick cash," he said.

Some 20 employees of Ornge were dismissed this week, and Mr. McKerlie hinted on Friday that more heads could roll.

"So many people in this company have been hurt by the actions of a few," he said. "That's disturbing to me. People have lost jobs that did nothing wrong, and there may still be people employed who did something wrong and that has to be fixed."

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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