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Whistler's helipad finally open at health care centre

Busy mountain bike season top of mind as officials clear last hurdles

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Whistler's health care centre helipad is now open for business.

While it's good news, said Dr. Bruce Mohr, chief of medical staff at the Whistler Health Care Centre, "it is long overdue."

The helipad has been closed for more than 15 months. It was due to open early this year but several problems caused further delays.

"There was a wholesale inspection all over again," said Trudi Beutel of Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) of the Transport Canada visit June 28.

"Back in February there were a number of deficiencies that were identified so (the) inspection was to ensure that those deficiencies were addressed."

Those included problems with traffic management — in February pedestrians and vehicles failed to heed warnings to stop when signalled to do so for a helicopter — and small concrete particles were flaking off the million-dollar concrete landing surface.

Transport Canada went through the process of how a helicopter would land and take off as part of the inspection, and was satisfied that the system in place worked.

This includes workers from the health care centre taking responsibility for a helicopter's landing and take-off. Beutel said several people would be responsible for this duty, which is receiving extra funding and training.

"As of twelve noon today it was open for business," she said Friday, June 29.

"We are really aware that it is the biking season up there and this is pretty important, so that was always top of people's minds to get this up and running again."

Mohr said the extra funding for the shared-duty helipad position, which comes with a $100,000 budget, will work well as it will allow the Centre to get extra staff to help with simple casting, splints, the transportation of patients to x-ray and so on. The long-term hope is for more staff trained in orthopedics, which accounts for 43 per cent of all emergency room visits in Whistler.

Mohr credits the pre-hospital care teams in helping to make sure that patients got the best help they could on the convoluted trip to the Centre — rescue helicopters had to land at the municipal pad to the north of the resort while the helipad was closed.

"They were under duress," he said. "There was a lot of stress there, a lot of stress."

Said Beutel:"We would like to thank the community, the Resort Municipality and the regional hospital district for all their patience over the last two years, that can't be said loudly enough. This was a long, long project and a complex one."

The helipad opened in the mid 1990s and was used as needed to get the most seriously injured off the mountain, out of the backcountry, or from car crashes and other medical emergencies to the care they needed in a timely fashion.

At the time it was used mostly by helicopters with only one engine, which is against Transport Canada safety regulations in this type of setting.

In late 2009 Transport Canada gave VCH until November 2011 to meet its safety regulations. There has only been one minor safety incident reported in all the years of operation, according to the Transportation Safety Board. It happened in 1992.

In order to meet Transport Canada's rules to allow helicopters with multiple engines to land — single engine helis are still not allowed to land — trees had to come down, people had to be trained to stop traffic, the landing pad needed upgrades and light standards had to be lowered. Though VCH knew of TC's demands in late 2009 it didn't come before council to ask for permission to make the changes needed until October 2010.

In December 2010 the trees were cut and a plan was in place to have the RCMP, Whistler Blackcomb staff and staff of the health care centre manage traffic and the two-engine helis were allowed to continue landing on a temporary basis by Transport Canada.

Then in April 2011 the helipad was closed completely for further upgrades to the landing pad. Though it was understood the closure would be short, it has in fact been out of service until now. All flights were diverted to the municipal heliport north of Whistler.

The $600,000 upgrade is actually closer to $1million, due in part to a decision by VCH to upgrade the de-icing system and other technical components.

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