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.

Comments

I live on Twin Peaks and we experience helicopter flights constantly - it's something one expects in an urban environment. Doesn't the Guardian have anything better to bitch about than hospitals using helicopters to ferry sick and dying patients to treatment? Try living in LA sometime if you want to experience helicopter overload.

When is The Guardian going to write about North Korea's kidnapping of two San Francisco-based journalists? The silence from The Guardian on this crime is deafening.

Posted by Shane on Jul. 10, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

The Neighbors of San Francisco General Hospital are holding the Fall Funraiser auction on November 14th.

It’s going to be great fun. We will have live music, food, drinks (wine and beer), and you can meet your neighbors. You might walk away with a great item at a great price while supporting a cause you believe in.

We are pleased to announce that this fundraiser will also include an online auction. Check out it out now: http://neighborsofsfgh.dojiggy.com/

And here are the details for the live event:

Date: Saturday November 14, 2009
Time: 4:00 - 7:00 PM
Location: Potrero Hill Neighborhood House
953 De Haro Street @ Southern Heights Avenue

Tickets: $100 per person (in advance or at the door)

Tickets advance for purchase online (Secured by PayPal—you will be directed to PayPal’s site).

http://stophelipad.com

Posted by Jimmy Zane on Oct. 29, 2009 @ 11:38 am
h

Rebecca,

I posted a comment to Shane which was later erased. I'm at h@ludd.net. Since this also happened to a comment I posted earlier on the piece Tim did on helicopters I was wondering if you can relate to me if I've been banned? What a time for censorship.

h.

Posted by h on Jul. 12, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

h. -- we don't ban people or delete comments unless they use hate speech. We've been getting hit with a ton of spam which is breaking our comments. We're working on it. Feel free to repost, and always remember: computers aren't magic.

Posted by Marke B. on Jul. 13, 2009 @ 5:44 am

Where, pray tell, do the Neighbors of San Francisco General prefer these awful, awful helipads to be built?
Maybe on Mt. Tamalpais, perhaps, where the whirring of blades will disturb only the wildlife? But no, that project would surely be NIMBY'd out of existence as well. Maybe we can put a helipad on a platform 50 miles out in the Pacific, and then ferry the grievously injured into SF General. By that time, they'd probably be dead, but hey, the Neighbors of San Francisco General will have dined in peace.

Posted by Evan on Jul. 13, 2009 @ 7:41 am
h

Rebecca,

tim's piece was on parking meters in GG Park.

h.

Posted by h on Jul. 12, 2009 @ 3:59 pm

I commented extensively on the UCSF Mission Bay helipad project and the San Francisco General Hospital proposed helipad. In the context of safety the SFGH proposed helipad poses many more safety issues than Mission Bay. The flight path for arrival and departures will come from the east over the bay. The SFGH helipad would have a helicopter landing in emergency conditions...including foggy weather...up to 2 times a day in a densely populated neighborhood. The noise impacts at Mission Bay were found to be the most significant adverse impact. I support the proposed helipad at Mission Bay because pediatric emergency transports have been documented in the aeromedical literature to be most benefited by this life saving service.

Posted by Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, M.D. on Jul. 14, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

Shane and Evan: Do a little research before you post knee-jerk reactions.

Medical helicopters are extraordinarily different than the news helicopters we all experience in SF.

What's important is that the helipad at SFGH is not needed. SFGH is going to spend $7 MM on the helipad, nevermind maintaining it. At that same time all kinds of hcity programs are being cut. The city is in a dire economic situation.

If you put aside the serious [and well documented] safety issues with medical helicopters, you need to first consider the need.

Medical helicopters will not land in SF. It's too densely populated. The SFGH free admits this fact. And besides, ground ambulance transportation within is considerably faster.

So who is going to be transported to SFGH? Per the hospital the overwhelming majority will be stable patients from outside of SF.

So why do we need this?

Posted by James on Jul. 14, 2009 @ 11:20 am

Joe Boss and his wife Janet Carpinelli, doing business under the name Dogpatch Neighborhood Association are local extortionists who should be ignored at all costs. They publicly oppose any and all projects in the area until you hire Joe as a "consultant" and write him a check, I read all about this and their tactics in the Potrero View a couple of years back. If you don't pay them off first, Janet opposes your project in the name of the DNA, to make them go away, you then quietly hire Joe as a consultant and as if my magic, all "neighborhood opposition" to your project is removed and you get DNA approval, or vice-versa: sometimes you hire Joe as a consultant but you don't pay him off directly, you instead write a six-figure check to Janet's GreenTrust nonprofit and he gets your project approved.

The feds calls this racketeering.

See the archives at http://potreroview.net/ -- this is where I got this info, it's scandalous.

Posted by dogpatchtruth on Aug. 01, 2009 @ 7:15 am

When I was on the Western SOMA Task Force, Boss approached us to participate in spending six figures of this money on transportation improvements on Townsend.

The TF agreed that I should participate on behalf of the TF, but the phone call from Boss was never forthcoming.

There is nothing wrong with being a Republican, but is it proper for Republicans like Boss to be the gatekeepers for development on the flats near SOMA?

What ever happened to that money?

-marc

Posted by marcos on Aug. 12, 2009 @ 4:34 am