Medical helicopter access still an issue 

Various groups working towards improved Whistler Health Care Centre

Stakeholders are working on a traffic management plan as work continues on safety issues around the landing of medical helicopters at Whistler's Healthcare Centre.

"Eventually what we want to have happen is that there is some sort of system where one person can basically stop all the traffic that needs to happen when a helicopter lands," said WHCC's manager of acute care, Anne Townley.

"Right now we're needing to use Whistler Health Care Centre staff, the parking attendants from Whistler Blackcomb and RCMP are often showing up, so the engineers are working on a plan so that one person will basically be able to stop the traffic when the helicopter needs to come in."

Each time a helicopter lands in Canada, it must do so in accordance to Transport Canada standards.

For safety reasons, a closely monitored system guides the process and at the provincially run Whistler Health Care Centre (WHCC), only aircrafts with twin engine power - designated H1 and H2 - have landing privileges. Though the WHCC was granted approved H2 status in December of 2010, Whistler Search and Rescue (SAR) director Brad Sills is still concerned over the lack of H3 status, which would allow single engine helicopters to access the centre's helipad.

"What I do know is that single engines are not allowed to land at the clinic anymore and that most of the helicopters in the local fleets around Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish, are single engine," he said.

"We're still restricted as to what can come and go from there and my point is just that it needs to be fixed, whether it's money or more trees down, whatever it is we have too much trauma in this town not to be able to bring people in and take them out in a hurry."

Vancouver Coastal Health, which operates the WHCC, completed a number of upgrades during a month-long closure of the landing last fall. They will continue to improve the infrastructure in the spring, which will require another month-long shut down.

Townley hopes to see H3 status implemented at the centre by the end of 2011, but Sills is concerned the prevention of single engine helicopters landing at WHCC will result in more situations like the one that took place last weekend.

"Saturday afternoon we airlifted an injured snowmobiler out with serious injuries and it probably cost at least an hour delay in treatment," he said. "We had to fly him to the municipal heliport and he was transferred by ambulance back to the clinic where they stabilized him, then he had to be taken back out to the heliport to be flown down to the city.

"It's just a shame that you have all these people working hard as they can to promote health and well being and you have other groups who have the public interest at heart but the objectives of both seem to be competing against each other."

Though a lack of H3 status means single engine helicopters are prohibited from landing at the WHCC, pilots are allowed to overrule that mandate in emergency situations on recommendation of a doctor, SAR member or mountain patrol.

A representative from the WHCC will present an information package on the project to Resort Municipality of Whistler council in mid-March.




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