Helipad closure may cause crisis
Imagine a loved one has been injured in a serious car accident and needs to be flown to Washoe Medical Center in Reno for immediate medical care. Only what once was a 30 minute trip could have as much as 45 minutes tacked on. The helipad at Barton Memorial Hospital was officially closed Oct. 31 and now helicopters can only fly out of the Lake Tahoe Airport.
Moving a severely injured patient from Barton to the airport doesn’t just take additional time, it increases ambulance cost, which is a minimum of $435.
But the helipad at Barton has been deemed unsafe by the California Department of Transportation, which regulates such activity. In fact, Caltrans never approved the safety of the helipad at Barton, because it does not allow enough room to safely land, said Jim Drago, Caltrans spokesman.
The helipad is surrounded by trees and buildings and requires the helicopter to drop straight down. The elevation of Barton makes this kind of landing potentially dangerous.
Caltrans began sending letters to Barton about the helipad as early as the ’70s and later in the ’80s, he added.
“I think it is important to note that this goes back at least 20 years as an illegal use,” Drago said
But four years ago, South Lake Tahoe City Council passed a resolution to designate the helipad at Barton for emergency landings, to be used by emergency helicopters only. City Council passed this resolution even though the law only gives such authority to public safety agencies.
County Supervisor David Solaro, who was the police chief when the resolution came up for an extension in 1997, declined to sign an approval.
“I refused to sign it, because I agreed with Caltrans and it was a liability issue,” he said. There were a total of two extensions over four years. City Council made these extensions to protect the immediate safety of residents. During this time Barton made several promises in writing to the city to construct a helipad compliant with Caltrans codes. This never happened.
In April, Airport Manager Rick Jenkins wrote a letter to the city based on a conversation he had with Jim Michel, Caltrans aeronautics division representative, that stated if the helipad was not closed down in October 2000, the end of the last extension, state lawyers would shut down the Barton helipad.
“Our position is strictly one driven by safety,” Drago said. “We’re not only worried about the patients, but everybody flying and on the ground at the hospital. The way it is run now, it is not safe.”
After the last City Council approved extension to designate Barton as an emergency landing site expired on Oct. 31, Chief of Police and Fire Brad Bennett, who has the authority to make decisions on emergency landing sites, declined to make another extension, because it made the city legally responsible for any accidents.
“We would be in essence overriding a mandate from Caltrans, which has the authority in this area,” said City Attorney Catherine DiCamillo. She said that an accident at the Barton helipad could result in a very large lawsuit against the city.
Bill Gordon, CEO of Barton, said the shut down of the heliport is a short sighted approach by the city.
“Our position is that we are moving as fast as we can, working with every agency until we can get it done,” Gordon said. He said Barton hopes to start construction of an elevated $600,000 helipad by spring.
Mary Flores, emergency manager for Barton Hospital, said that between January 1 and June 30, there were 87 patients flown from Barton to Washoe. Another 15 flights carried patients, who needed surgery that could not be provided at Barton.
Careflight, an air ambulance service, with helicopters based in Reno and Gardnerville. flew 66 of those flights. John Morrison, director of critical care services for Careflight, said that the choice to land at Barton was up to each individual pilot.
“Safety is a judgment call and our pilots make that determination,” he said. “They wouldn’t land anywhere they didn’t think it was safe and every situation is different.”
But not every air ambulance company was willing to fly into the Barton helipad.
“CALSTAR did not fly in there because concerns of the altitude,” said Tom Goff, program director for CALSTAR. “We didn’t have enough fly away zones and the trees were too high next to the helipad.”
CALSTAR flew into Barton for four years, but last year, because pilots complained of safety issues, it began only flying into the airport, Goff said.
“My pilots came back and did not feel (Barton) was as safe as it should be, and I said ‘ok lets go to the airport.’ “
As a result, CALSTAR only flies into Barton once or twice a month, Goff said.
Reach, another air ambulance company which operates out of Sacramento and Santa Rosa, will only fly into the airport because it does not feel that their helicopters have enough power to safely land at Barton, said Vicky Spediacci, assistant director for operations of Reach
“If the helipad had been at sea level, we probably would not have had any problem operating in and out of there,” she said.
Reach flies patients out of Lake Tahoe between 10 and 15 times a year, she said. Most patients are taken to medical facilities in Sacramento or San Francisco.
Spediacci said that Reach stopped flying into Barton two years ago, but occasionally will drop off medical gear at the helipad during the winter when the air is thicker and more conducive for helicopter performance. However, Reach would never attempt to land at Barton in the summer and will only pick up patients at the airport.
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