Healthcare centre helipad's fate rests in community's hands 

Certification can be removed by Transport Canada

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The thought of flying over the health care centre, away from help, with a critically ill patient is not a task Brad Sills ever wants to do again. And so he needs Whistler's help.

On Wednesday, the helipad at the Whistler Health Care Centre was cleared for take off and landing of single-engine helicopters, after Transport Canada approved a five-year H3 certification of the pad. About a week ago, it was also certified for regular H1.

It's up to the community, however, to make sure the certification stays in place.

Transport Canada will be monitoring the flashing-red traffic lights, as well as the pedestrian no-go zone; those lights will flash for roughly three to six minutes while a helicopter is landing and pedestrians are no longer able to walk in the vicinity of the pad.

A wrong move could spell more trouble for the beleaguered helipad that has been shut down, then upgraded, failed inspections and cost roughly $1.8 million in the last four years.

"It's going to be really important for the community to recognize that the traffic patterns have to be respected," said Sills, manager of Whistler Search and Rescue (WSAR). "When the red lights are on, it's just not cool to go through there. There will be monitoring of it and Transport Canada has worked very hard to get this pad back into conformance and the community has to recognize that this is a high-activity helipad on a very busy intersection. A single violation could mean closure of the pad."

After championing the cause for the last several years, stressing the need for H3 certification for SAR to do its job, closure of the pad is not a prospect that Sills ever wants to entertain again.

He knows just how critical this link is between injured people on the mountains and help at the centre.

"For anybody that spends any time on the mountains around here, this is the difference between life and death," said Sills. "And that's no exaggeration. The helicopter service in and out of the clinic is responsible for probably a good half dozen saves, at least, on the conservative side, every year."

And so while Vancouver Coastal Health, who has paid the majority of the $1.8 million to bring the helipad into compliance, is now breathing a sigh of relief, concerns abound about ongoing compliance.

"I think we can now focus our attentions... on patient care and the quality of care that we provide at the Whistler clinic and not be distracted by the heliport certification anymore," said Laurie Leith, coastal operations director at Vancouver Coastal Health.

"We do have to keep our eye on it continually, however. Transport Canada can come at any time and audit us... It's not something that's ever going to go away. It's always going to have to be at the forefront of our thoughts and plans."

She didn't hesitate to call out the community partners who came to the table to keep the health helipad alive: the Resort Municipality of Whistler for clearing municipal hurdles, the Whistler Health Care Foundation with a $160,000 contribution, the Regional Health District with a $180,000 contribution and Vancouver Coastal Health.

About four years ago, Transport Canada abruptly closed the helipad at the health centre because it was not in conformance for a pad operating in the middle of a busy village.

There is no other helipad like it in B.C., and so it presented a unique problem for regulators.

"I think the biggest challenge has just been to come up with a plan to secure the H1 status, never mind moving to H3," said Leith.

"The biggest challenge was trying to understand how we could control the pedestrian and traffic around the area.

"There's not a helipad really like it that we're aware of, at least in Western Canada if not nationally, given that you have a heliport right in the middle and you have a small city that's grown up around it."

Over the past four years, amid upgrades and failed inspections, helicopters would detour north, over the health centre, to the municipal helipad where patients would then be transferred back to the centre via ambulance. It was a frustrating journey adding precious minutes to patients' care.

"The thought of having to fly over top of the clinic on the way northbound out to the (municipal) helipad with somebody who is just clinging to life, is not something that a volunteer wants to do," said Sills.

Years of lobbying from WSAR, spearheaded by Sills, led to a new plan for H3 certification — one that changed the flight path of the helicopters over the day lots to allow for single-engine landings.

"I'm very pleased that this is finally completed," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "We were in serious jeopardy of having the entire heliport closed down, so the fact that it is open and can accommodate H3 aircraft is very gratifying... I'm glad the message from SAR was acted upon."

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