Health centre sidewalks to be ripped up for helipad 

Fifty-Nine trees in helicopter flight path must be topped or chopped

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CLARE OGILVIE - Sidewalks must go The helipad  precinct is to be changed.
  • Photo by Clare Ogilvie
  • Sidewalks must go The helipad precinct is to be changed.

The sidewalks around the Whistler Health Care Centre will be ripped up and pedestrian traffic diverted in an effort to keep the busy helipad open for business.

In addition, 17 trees will be removed around parking Day Lots 4 and 5, and 42 trees more will be topped to accommodate the shallow flight path of single-engine helicopters, which have been unable to land at the health centre's million-dollar helipad for several years.

That, and another $600,000 is what's needed to bring back a fully operational health care helipad, the likes of which Whistler has been without for the past four years.

On Tuesday night, council gave the green light for Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), to move ahead with its plans to get the helipad up to scratch. The work will be done on municipal land and will be paid for by VCH with funding help from the Sea to Sky Regional Hospital District.

"I think this is a workable solution," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, highlighting the fact that if it's not done the helipad will likely be closed.

The changes are welcome news to Whistler Blackcomb's Doug Forseth, senior vice president of operations.

"That's really important to so many people in this community," said Forseth, of the changes that will allow single-engine helicopters to land again.

Many helicopters coming off the mountains are single engine (H3) and many of those have been unable to land at the clinic, instead having to be diverted to the municipal helipad north of Emerald. Patients are then loaded into an ambulance and rushed to the centre, often adding 20 minutes to the journey.

"It was only a matter of time," said Forseth, of the chances of that delay having a negative effect on a patient.

"It certainly has an impact on injuries that happen on the mountain that are airlifted."

In 2013, there were 45 landings at the helipad. In the first half of 2014 there have been 26 landings. Those are a mixture of Blackcomb Helicopters and BC Ambulance Service. It's not clear how many others have been diverted.

The proposal before council calls for the removal of the sidewalks hugging the health centre along Lorimer Way and on Blackcomb Way. The sidewalk on the east side of Blackcomb Way, atop the berm along Lot 4, will also be removed and placed inside the parking lot. The two crosswalks at the intersection will also be removed and a new one installed on Blackcomb Way.

"There are a lot of details that have yet to be worked out," explained Joe Paul, general manager of infrastructure services.

"Staff are in support of this program from the perspective of keeping the helipad open."

VCH has been working with the municipality in an effort to develop a plan that will satisfy the requirements of Transport Canada, but at the same time minimize inconvenience to visitors and residents in Whistler.

Councillor Duane Jackson said he uses that intersection every day.

"We have to do it and I trust that you'll come up with the best solution," he said.

The decision puts an end to four years of upgrades, failing tests from Transport Canada, negotiations between all parties and finally compromise.

As she looked at VCH representatives in the audience Tuesday night, Wilhelm-Morden ended the discussion with a nod and smile: "Finally. Good. Thank you."

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