S.F. helipads generate a whirlwind of controversy

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by Rebecca Bowe

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The Children’s Hospital at UCSF in Mission Bay won’t be completed until 2014, but the debate about the helipad proposed for the facility’s roof has been simmering for several years, and the project is headed to the Board of Supervisors for approval in the next several weeks. Meanwhile, controversy surrounding a proposed helipad at San Francisco General Hospital flared anew this week, thanks to a piece of proposed state legislation that was working its way through policy committees in Sacramento. That bill, AB 1272, would have required that provisions for air transport be included in all statewide trauma system plans.

AB 1272, authored by Assemblymember Jerry Hill of San Mateo County and co-sponsored by Assemblymember Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, was opposed by a host of San Francisco organizations. Staffers in Hill’s and Ammiano’s offices described it as a bill that would merely make it easier for trauma centers to install helicopter landing pads, rather than a mandate that any helicopter-landing facilities be built. But Loretta Lynch, a member of opposition group Neighbors of San Francisco General, characterized the legislation as a sort of back-door method of requiring a helipad, a move she said was an attempt to dodge local opposition by introducing policy at the state level.

The state legislation was downgraded to a two-year bill this afternoon, Lynch told us, so it’s a moot issue for now. But the organized, early opposition to it highlights the fact that efforts build helicopter landing pads at city hospitals is a highly sensitive issue in San Francisco.

The grassroots organization organized in opposition to the SFGH helipad, which operates a Web site called StopHelipad.com, has been battling with the city’s General Hospital for several years over the noise and safety impacts that they say a low-flying helicopters would introduce to the neighborhood. Yet spokespeople from SFGH and the Department of Public Health told the Guardian that the General Hospital’s helipad project, which would have been built at the existing hospital rather than the new one, is at a standstill. “It’s not dead, it’s just hibernating,” DPH spokesperson Eileen Shields explained. “We really wanted to focus our energies and resources on the new hospital building.”

SFGH spokesperson Rachael Kagan sounded a similar note. “The hospital still believes in the need for medical air access, but our efforts to achieve that weren’t successful,” she explained. “Now we’re focusing our efforts on the rebuild.” Helipad proponents point to San Francisco’s congested roadways as evidence that a faster transport method is needed to transport critically injured patients to the county’s most specialized trauma center during life-threatening situations. Neighborhood opponents, meanwhile, say there’s no need for a helipad because the area is already well-served by trauma centers equipped with helipads a short flight distance away. Plus, they say, helicopter flights are costly and dangerous.

The SFGH controversy may have receded into the background for now, but approval for a second helipad at the future UCSF Childrens’ Hospital at Mission Bay is close at hand. As early as July 20, the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use and Economic Development Committee will hold a public hearing on a resolution introduced by committee chair Sup. Sophie Maxwell approving the UCSF helipad.

According to informational materials provided by the hospital, patients will only be flown in via helicopter in the most dire situations. For example, a newborn with a life-threatening heart defect, a child at risk of dying form severe organ failure or a pregnant woman with complications that could threaten the life of her or her baby would be rushed from other facilities via helicopter. The estimated number of patient drop-offs is between one and two a day, but there’s no maximum limit.

Meanwhile, neighbors in Dogpatch, Mission Bay and Potrero Hill Neighborhoods raised enough of a ruckus over the noise pollution and safety concerns presented by helicopters overhead that hospital officials wound up hosting more than 60 community meetings to address the impacts, according to community relations director Barbara Bagot-Lopez. In the fall of 2007, UCSF conducted a helicopter flight test in the neighborhood to simulate what a hospital transport would sound like, and measured the noise impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.

“It was quite noisy,” nearby resident Joe Boss, who was there during the flight test, told us. “[We] couldn’t believe how loud it was.”

Others were pleasantly surprised by what they perceived as a low noise level, but the copter test also revealed that “some people were seriously impacted by the noise,” according to Bagot-Lopez. That led to the development of a Residential Sound Reduction Program, designed to accommodate nearby residents who might experience sleep disruption from the noise. Under the program, eligible residents can receive a check for sound-proofing their sleeping areas, based on the findings of an acoustical consultant that UCSF would send around to area households. In exchange for the retrofits, the neighbors must sign an agreement releasing UCSF from future claims.

Ron Hanik, a Dogpatch Neighborhood resident, told the Guardian that he didn’t think much of the noise-reduction program because statistics have shown that even at the noise level that is presumed to be acceptable, 85 decibels, 9 percent of the population would likely experience sleep disruption. Hanik said the hospital was unable to provide statistics showing how many lives would be saved by merit of the UCSF helipad, and that they couldn’t substantiate the benefit. He also worries about the potential for flight collisions or crashes in a densely populated area.

A nationwide spike in medical helicopter crashes over the past decade recently put the rapidly expanding air medical transport industry under scrutiny, and several studies published in medical journals suggest that helicopter transport, a much costlier method than ground ambulance, is overused.

For her part, Bagot-Lopez believes that thanks to all the community input, “The project’s much better.” She added that the landing site was moved to be as far away from residents as possible.

Quintin Mecke, a spokesman at Ammiano’s office, noted wearily that with regards to SFGH, “This issue regarding the helipad has a long and deep history. For Tom, it’s a progressive issue” to make sure SFGH has a helipad, Mecke added. To opponents like Lynch, it’s a matter of medical air-transport industry interests vs. neighborhood interests, and today she cheered along with other helipad opponents when AB 1272 failed to make it out of committee.