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Upgrades will allow single-engine helicopter landings at health care centre

Vancouver Coastal Health to spend another $600,000 on helipad



Single-engine helicopters, often used in Whistler to evacuate the critically injured off the mountains, may be allowed to land at the health clinic helipad as soon as September, ending a four-year impasse in which some lives have hung in the balance.

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) is coming to the council table on Tuesday, Aug. 5, with a proposal that will ultimately solve the persistent problems plaguing the busy and vital helipad in the heart of the village — Whistler's lifeline from the mountains to higher levels of medical care in the city.

Its $610,000 proposal takes care of two problems: pedestrian flow around the helipad and the single-engine flight path. It means changes are on the way. But the goal is to keep the centre's helipad, which in the first six months of 2014 has seen 26 landings, more than one per week, working to deliver the best care possible to patients in Whistler.

"It's been a long time coming and we are very much looking forward to bringing this helipad upgrade to closure and to focus on patient care," said VCH operational director Laurie Leith.

She's not alone in her relief over finding a way forward and putting an end to what was seen by some as a ticking time bomb.

"We've been quite concerned that if it's not dealt with, the helipad could be closed entirely," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, noting the all-round frustration with the issue.

Just two weeks ago, the problem was front and centre when an injured mountain biker was flown out of the bike park with a suspected open-skull fracture and forced to land at the municipal helipad before being transferred into a waiting ambulance. The youth was in a single-engine helicopter. It was a detour that added at least 20 minutes in getting the patient to the centre for treatment.

This hasn't been the only case.

Blackcomb Aviation president and chief operating officer Jonathan Burke said in the last three to five years, ever since single engines have been barred from landing at the clinic, they have flown more than 20 patients north to the municipal helipad. Some of those were life-threatening cases.

"We're very happy that Coastal Health is coming in to present some solutions," said Burke.

"When someone's injured and in dire need of medical support, having flexibility in the type of aircraft that you can use at that heliport is to the benefit of all concerned."

Of the $610,000 budget, which will be borne by VCH and the Sea to Sky Regional Hospital District, $160,000 is needed to top trees and lower lamp standards to allow H3 helicopters (or single engines) to land.

Single engine helicopters have landed at the clinic's helipad since it opened in the mid-'90s — that is until Transport Canada brought in more stringent requirements. In May 2008, a deadly single-engine helicopter crash in downtown Cranbrook killed the pilot, two passengers and a pedestrian. The jury in the coroner's inquest to that crash recommended in April 2011 that machines flying over cities have more than one engine.

"Vancouver Coastal's position was that we would bring the helipad up to standard and it would be standard for H1 and H2 aircraft, which is what BC Ambulance uses," said Leith. "And so the H3 were not part of the original upgrade."

Leith said they researched to see if it was "medically necessary" to upgrade to support the H3 single-engines. And, perhaps more significantly, spoke to the stakeholders on the ground in Whistler.

"Medically wise it's inconclusive with the experts that we spoke to but anecdotally we heard what the medical providers were saying," she added.

"We thought 'OK, let's use this opportunity to bring it up to H3, which will provide a higher standard of care than what is actually medically necessary. But we might as well have optimum care, excellent care you would say, given that the helipad is so close to the Whistler Health Care Centre.'"

For Search and Rescue Manager Brad Sills, who has been publicly campaigning about the dangers of barring single engines from landing, this is welcome news.

"For search and rescue this means that we'll be able to move people out of harm's way to the clinic, instead of flying over top of it, travelling up the valley and then putting them in land transport to return back to the clinic," he said.

The other piece of the project — worth $450,000 — is the work to deal with pedestrian flow, an issue that arose after the first million-dollar upgrades were completed in 2012 and pedestrians failed to stop for warning signals.

Leith said: "We've had difficulty managing pedestrian control over the helipad area and them not obeying the current signage and gates that we have in place... The essence of them (the four options) is really to re-route pedestrians away from what we call the 'danger zone' in the helicopter pathway."

Transport Canada has insisted on a better solution to the pedestrian problem, which currently calls for workers, such as firefighters, to rush to the scene to hold back people while the helicopters take off and land. Transport Canada has asked for a permanent solution by the end of September.

"How can we make it foolproof, so to speak?" said Leith.

Details are scant, but will be made public in the council's work package by Friday, Aug. 1.

"If it's approved it's going to require a significant change in pedestrian traffic patterns, traffic flows, around the heliport. But when this has happened before, when traffic patterns change, people may grumble about it for a few days but then they readily adapt," said Wilhelm-Morden.

"And my hope is that with this case as well, that's exactly what will happen, because it's a case of make these adaptations or lose the heliport, and we certainly don't want to lose it."

If the plans are approved, work is slated to start immediately and be finished by the end of September. It is not yet clear if the helipad will close during the upgrades.