Search and Rescue requesting immediate action on helipad 

Goal is to restore single engine helicopter landing at Whistler Health Care Centre

click to enlarge CRITCAL CARE A B.C. Air Ambulance lands at the Whistler Health Care Centre last summer. The twin-engine ambulances are cleared to land at the helipad but the single engine choppers are currently banned by Transport Canada regulations.
  • CRITCAL CARE A B.C. Air Ambulance lands at the Whistler Health Care Centre last summer. The twin-engine ambulances are cleared to land at the helipad but the single engine choppers are currently banned by Transport Canada regulations.

While a faster response time may not have made a difference in a recent fatality in Blackcomb's backcountry, members of the Whistler Search and Rescue team believe it's only a matter of time before helicopter landing restrictions at the Whistler Health Care Centre contribute to a fatality. They're lobbying to have single-engine helicopter service to the Whistler Health Care Centre restored as soon as possible to reduce response times.

"I can tell you that if we're coming from the south, from Powder Mountain or the Callaghan or Black Tusk, then the over flight past the clinic to the helipad is approximately four to five minutes," said Whistler SAR (WSAR) manager Brad Sills.

"If we're handing the person over to B.C. Ambulance then the helicopter has to come to a complete stop where the rotors stop turning before we take the person out of the helicopter, and then we have to reassess the subject and trade notes before the ambulance drives off to the clinic.

"On a good day it's only 11 minutes from (the municipal helipad) to the clinic, but on a snowy day, or a snowy day with traffic, it could be longer. I think that even at the best of times we're adding 20 to 30 minutes onto the call (by not landing at the Whistler Health Care Centre). And if we're performing CPR, which we have in three instances (since the New Year), that's definitely not premium-grade health care, and not well suited to a community that has so much outdoor recreational activity."

The central issue is that the Whistler Health Care Centre helipad, which underwent close to a million dollars in upgrades in recent years, still cannot accommodate single-engine helicopters under Transport Canada regulations. That's despite the fact that the majority of helicopters in use in the Whistler area are lighter single-engine helicopters that are better suited to heli-skiing and high alpine work (12 of 16 helicopters in the Blackcomb Aviation fleet are single engine, for example) — and despite the fact that pilots themselves wrote a "Letter to the Editor" to

Pique last year to state that they have no issue landing at the health care centre.

In fact, many of the pilots have already landed at the health care centre numerous times over the 25 years the helipad was open to all types of helicopters, before the landing pad was found in 2010 to be out of compliance with federal regulations.

Currently all single-engine helicopters used in rescues have to land at the municipal helipad north of Emerald Estates and bring patients to the Whistler Health Care Centre by ambulance. Sills said that's not acceptable. "We're not prepared to see this become standard operating procedure," he said.

"We're going to keep moving this forward because it's the right thing to do."

According to Vancouver Coastal Health spokesperson Anna Marie D'Angelo the organization recognizes the level of community interest in reopening the health care centre to single-engine helicopters and has arranged a meeting with the Resort Municipality of Whistler to discuss the issue. Last time the topic was discussed, the cost and loss of trees derailed talks.

"Before we went to Transport Canada we had planned to have single engine landing (at the health care centre)... but to do that the flight path has to be free of the trees that are there," she said. "It would have had to happen anyway for that classification, and there are still a number of trees to come down to be in compliance for twin engines. But with the council of the day there wasn't the appetite for that."

That said, the official position of Vancouver Coastal Health is that the current situation doesn't pose a safety risk. "The helicopter landing situation is safe for our patients the way it is set up now, we have no qualms about that," said D'Angelo.

Sills and WSAR members have also requested a meeting with the municipality to discuss the situation and to get a sense of what the upgrades would cost so they can make a business case for the changes. For example, while they are adamant that opening the helipad to single engine helicopters could save lives and improve patient care, Sills said it also makes economic sense to use single engine helicopters that are cheaper to operate.

In WSAR's last annual report (Feb. 19, 2012 to Feb. 19, 2013) helicopters were used in 31 of 34 active searches and rescues. While the Provincial Emergency Program pays those costs, people are heading further into the backcountry than before, requiring more helicopter time than in the past.

"To charter a twin engine helicopter is more expensive than hiring a single engine," said Sills. "If you're running a business it makes sense to have single engines because they can do all the work of twin engines and they're cheaper to buy and cheaper to run.

"They're lighter and the power-to-weight ratio is much better, and the new ones have redundant hydraulics in them as well. It's reasonable to think that if the engine fails you'd be in a lot of trouble... but having two engines doesn't necessarily clear up all the problems. There's still one gearbox, one tail rotor, one hydraulic system that runs it all. Having twins doesn't mean we're never going to have a crash."

If they can't get the helipad reconfigured, Sills said they would appeal to Transport Canada to allow single engine helicopters to land at the health care centre in critical life and death situations.

"We'd like to see if there's a process for some kind of temporary adjudication," he said. "It seems at some point that there is a tradeoff where the risk to the patient overrides the risk of a possible aircraft accident... where we can say with absolute probability that we're going to lose people by not flying to the clinic. It would be nice to have a situational system where we could land there. It's not a lot. If there were 10 of those a year I'd be surprised."

According to numbers compiled by WSAR, the number of helicopter landings at the Whistler Health Care Centre has dropped off significantly.

• In 2007-2008 there was a 10-year high of 79 emergency flights to the helipad, followed by 69 in 2008-2009. The numbers dropped in the Olympic year along with visitor numbers.

• From November 2010, the helipad was restricted to twin-engine helicopters, and from the start of April 2010 to the end of March 2011 there were just 31 landings.

• The helipad was closed for upgrades from August 2011 to March 2012, and then again from April 2012 to June 2012. From April 2011 to March 2012 there were 31 landings at the helipad, and from April 2012 to Nov. 17, 2012 there were just 14.

• According to Vancouver Coastal Health an average of one patient per week has to be transported from the municipal helipad to the Whistler Health Care Centre by ambulance. The health care centre averages two medical evacuations from the Whistler Health Care Centre to hospitals in the Lower Mainland every week, using B.C.'s air ambulance service.

Readers also liked…

Latest in Whistler

More by Andrew Mitchell

© 1994-2019 Pique Publishing Inc., Glacier Community Media

- Website powered by Foundation