Edinburg airport gets funding boost, base for air ambulance

From left: Paul M. Vazaldua Jr., vice president of Organizational Leadership and Government Affairs for Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med; state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; David de Los Santos, EMT-P, Business Development Manager, Hidalgo County EMS-South Texas Air Med; and Shawn Snider, fire chief, city of Edinburg. The photo was taken on Feb. 14, during an event at Edinburg City Hall to congratulate Canales for his appointment as Chair of the House Committee on Transportation. (Mark Montemayor | Courtesy photo)

EDINBURG — City officials and key stakeholders are preparing to make several announcements involving the airport that carry major implications for the region.

The city council and staff made the South Texas International Airport at Edinburg a legislative priority this year, and with the help of several legislators, including state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and state Rep. Terry Canales, they were able to secure funding through SB 500.

“The South Texas International Airport is thrilled to learn that the 86th Legislative Session delegation secured $5 million to expand hangar facilities at the airport for emergency and first responders, as well as for supplementing border security operations,” airport manager Debora Pinto said.

The funds, which were appropriated from the economic stabilization fund to the Department of Transportation, will increase airport capacity and help it meet current and future aviation demands, Pinto said.

“(It’s) undoubtedly a game-changer and welcome airport improvement,” she added.

Hinojosa and Canales played instrumental roles in obtaining the funding. Hinojosa as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Canales as chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, which is where the money came from.

“The airport in Edinburg serves as (an) important base for regional air medical services and operations by the Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, and the United States National Guard,” Canales said in a prepared statement. “When we invest in the South Texas International Airport, we invest in safety and security for the entire South Texas community.”

Located within 25 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and adjacent to U.S. Highway 281, the airport serves as a base, staging ground and storage space for various law enforcement agencies. It also plays an integral role in border security, search and rescue operations, emergency hurricane relief and medical air transportation.

And soon, it will also be home to Hidalgo County’s only air ambulance.

“Hidalgo County EMS/South Texas Air Med has announced that the rotor ambulance will be housed at the South Texas International Airport in Edinburg,” said Paul Vazaldua, the vice president of organizational leadership and governmental affairs for the Edinburg-based ambulance company.

Earlier this year, Hidalgo County was left without an air ambulance after Missouri-based Air Evac Lifeteam, which owned a helicopter, ceased operations in the county.

About a month after their departure, Hidalgo County EMS — which is not affiliated with the local government and only bears its name — stepped in to fill that need. And now, the company is moving its operations from the McAllen Miller International Airport to Edinburg.

The new rotor ambulance system will create 15 jobs in Edinburg and it is anticipated that the airport will also house a ground crew for 911 calls, Vazaldua said. But perhaps more importantly, the air ambulance service will provide a service that is required in order for medical centers to obtain a Level 1 trauma designation.

No hospital system in the Rio Grande Valley is designated a Level I facility yet, but both Doctors Hospital at Renaissance and McAllen Medical Center are working on it.

McAllen Medical announced in April that the Texas Department of State Health Services had designated it a Level II facility, and DHR later announced that they were operating as a level 1 trauma center beginning May 1, though they have yet to earn the designation. And that designation, made by DSHS, can’t be awarded without an air ambulance service.

Currently, the nearest Level 1 trauma center is in San Antonio.