Barton helipad renewal |

Barton helipad renewal

Sarah Gonser

For the fifth year, the South Lake Tahoe City Council extended authorization for Barton Memorial Hospital’s use of its emergency helicopter landing pad.

The problem is the current helipad does not conform with California Department of Transportation safety standards. It has too many buildings and trees in close proximity. The council agreed to extend authorization, on the condition that Barton build a new helicopter landing facility and provide quarterly progress updates.

“I think the City Council’s attitude has been to try and be accommodating, but I don’t think anyone thought it would take five years,” said City Manager Kerry Miller. “Now I think the council is very interested in keeping Barton’s feet to the fire.”

Care Flight vice president Jane Miller said the emergency helicopter service has landed at Barton for 19 years without incident.

“Anytime you don’t have a vertical descent and ascent, you’re looking at a more difficult situation for the pilot,” Care Flight’s Miller acknowledged. “Barton’s situation is definitely not the best out there, but it’s not the worst and as long as the city approves it as an emergency landing site, we can continue to land there.”

According to Barton’s chief executive officer, the hospital has been researching options ever since Caltrans raised the limited glide-path to the helipad as a safety issue. One option, he said, was to close down the helipad and let Care Flight helicopters land at Lake Tahoe Airport.

“The problem there is the time issue because some of the patients are in very critical condition,” Bill Gordon said. “Also, there’s an extra $500 to $600 for ground transportation to the airport.”

Caltrans officials liked an alternative proposal for a site east of the building, but Gordon said that would have involved tearing out 420 trees on both Barton and private properties. The hospital considered building a landing site on top of the Barton facility, but that proved to be structurally unsafe. Plans were also discussed for a two-story parking garage with a landing site on the roof, but Gordon said the hospital did not have sufficient ground coverage for such a project.

“So what we’ve come up with, and budgeted to do next year, is to hire an Ohio-based firm that builds portable helipads,” Gordon said. “That seems to be the solution. We could put the pad on top of the emergency room overhead entrance. Not on the building itself, but over the drive area. That way we’re OK with the glide path and far fewer trees need to be taken out.”

Barton is including $560,000 for the project in next year’s budget, he said, but a construction start date depends on how lengthy the permit process becomes.

“With all the bureaucracy of state regulatory agencies, we might not get it in within the next 12 months,” Gordon said. “But hopefully, we will nevertheless be able to begin early next year.”

After City Council approval, final approval for the current helipad needs to come from the police department. But according to Commander Rich McGuffin, speaking on behalf of Fire and Police Chief Brad Bennett who was out of the office Friday, there are some serious safety concerns to consider.

“Brad’s not going to give his blessing unless the helipad conforms to Caltrans’ safety specifications,” McGuffin said. “And right now, it doesn’t.”

Miller said Barton is assuming full liability for the current helipad.

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