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Helipad or Bust
Fort St. John Petroleum Association keeps fighting for helipad at new hospital
March 30th, 2012
James WATERMAN, Staff Writer - Pipeline News

The local oil and gas industry is adamant that the new hospital in Fort St. John should include a helicopter pad, despite Northern Health's assertion that no such facility will be part of the project.

That was the message that came across loud and clear during the heated discussion that took place at the Fort St. John Petroleum Association meeting on Thursday, March 1, which was attended by representatives from Northern Health, the Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) and the City of Fort St. John.

Fort St. John residents who work in the oil and gas industry are concerned about quick access to medical care in cases of serious injuries, particularly considering the remote locations and inherent dangers that come with the job, but Northern Health officials insist that the potential risks of having a helipad at the hospital far outweigh the possible benefits.

Northern Health prefers the option of situating the helipad at the airport instead.

"We want that patient to our facility as soon as possible," said Northern Health's Director of Business Development Finlay Sinclair, admitting that helicopter is the best method of transporting injured workers from the oil patch to the hospital.

However, Sinclair noted that Northern Health must also consider the safety of those patients already at the hospital, whose lives could be endangered by a helicopter accident onsite.

"The notion of being able to move them anywhere quickly could be considered a nightmare," he said.

"A helicopter crash over a hospital – this is a disaster," added Dr. Brad Gullason during his presentation describing why Northern Health has opted to locate the helipad at the airport.

That definitely isn't worth the risk, according to Gullason, especially considering some of the instances in which the existing helipad has been employed.

"We've had people that have walked off the helicopter to emergency," he said.

Gullason explained that a patient who has gone into cardiac arrest and has received CPR for a considerable length of time isn't going to make it to the hospital at any rate. The real solution in those cases is work crews having defibrillators – which have a cost ranging from $1200 to $2000 – in the field.

In other cases, the estimated five minutes of traveling time – or ten minutes if the ambulance has to wait for a passing train on route – from the airport to the hospital isn't going to make a difference in the life of that patient.

"Yes, it is possible," said Gullason. "But it’s very, very [rare] that that five minutes makes a difference."

Many of those in attendance took exception to the notion of a five minute trip from the airport to the hospital, noting lengthier delays caused by the train would be very likely. Some argued that transferring patients from the helicopter to the ambulance and then from the ambulance to the hospital would also add to that travel time, but Gullason explained that the transfer time would be no different than the present situation with the helipad on the roof of the old hospital.

Currently, B.C. Ambulance staff must transport patients from the helicopter to the emergency room. That raised concerns about the competence of the B.C. Ambulance Service, which is outside the authority of Northern Health.

Dan Bridge, who was invited by the Petroleum Association to briefly tell his story during the meeting, spoke about paramedics who were reluctant to move his son from the helicopter when he was crushed by a side boom working in the oil patch.

Bridge was later told by the doctor that his son had so many bone fragments in his leg that one false move could have led to a punctured artery, which would have caused the young man to bleed to death. Bridge commented that he isn't comfortable with local ambulance personnel handling that sort of responsibility.

Tyler Kosick, President of the Fort St. John Petroleum Association, also remarked that response time for B.C. Ambulance, as well as the performance of paramedics, can be very poor, and asked Sinclair if there was anything that could be done by Northern Health to improve that situation.

Sinclair responded that RCMP and Northern Health staff have been used to transport patients in another jurisdiction that only has one ambulance, noting that it is a driver's license issue, not an issue of medical credentials. That may be an option for Fort St. John.

"I can engage that discussion," he said.

Concerning the potential of a helicopter crash at a hospital, Gullason cited statistics from the United States indicating that working on a medivac helicopter is one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S., as well as something known as the Dead Man's Curve, which is the relationship between altitude and airspeed that keeps helicopters from crashing.

Bob Batchelor, a retired helicopter pilot, promptly attacked those arguments, stating that the Dead Man's Curve is no longer a factor.

"Your statistics with respect to... medivac accidents [are] very poorly worded," said Batchelor. "Because I don't think those statistics apply at all in Canada."

"Crumple that slide," he added.

Greg Schmidt, the Grande Prairie Base Director for STARS, noted that there have been no medivac related deaths in Canada and only one crash, which occurred in Ontario.

"We are advocates for having helipads at as many hospitals as possible," said Schmidt, adding that the risks associated with helipads at hospitals have been overblown.

However, Schmidt also noted that the Fort St. John hospital isn't a desired destination for people who have suffered serious injuries, suggesting that nearby Grande Prairie is better equipped to deal with those patients.

Kosick also raised the point that the new hospital is located on a 40 acre tract of land donated by the city. That parcel is surrounded by farms and undeveloped land.

"There is room for an offsite landing," he said.

City councillor Trever Bolin, who attended the meeting, noted that the City is in favour of a helipad at the hospital, but did not respond to Sinclair's statement that "the City anticipates growth around the hospital, and residential growth."

"It changes the rules for landing [aircraft]," he added.

Following the meeting, Doug Ross of Energetic Services sent emails to Mayor Lori Ackerman and Bolin regarding the issue.

"Is there nothing we can do as a community to have Northern Health reconsider?" Ross wrote in his email.

"What has to happen before they do? Does someone have to die on the ambulance ride from the airport to the hospital? Or die at the airport waiting for an ambulance because they're too busy?"

The immediate email responses from Ackerman and Bolin were favourable to his cause.

"We need to stick together as community and consistently remind Northern Health how important this is to Fort St John, even though they don't think it is," said Bolin.

"We did tell [Northern Health] that the community would not be happy with this decision," said Ackerman, suggesting a face-to-face meeting with Ross and other members of the Petroleum Association should be the next course of action.

That meeting was still yet to occur at press time, as Ross was trying to ensure that Prince George-Peace River MP Bob Zimmer would be able to participate.

Through all the debate, Gullason continually stated that the real priority for Northern Health is not treating patients with serious injuries at the Fort St. John hospital, which is only a Level 5 trauma centre, but moving those patients to Level 1 trauma centres in Edmonton or Vancouver. It takes at least four hours to transport patients from the field to one of those hospitals regardless of the position of the helipad.

"Surgeons are hard to come by and we only have two," said Gullason. "We definitely don't have a trauma surgeon."

So, Gullason is hopeful that the Petroleum Association, which is eager to donate funds to building a helipad at the hospital, will be willing to divert those funds to equipment for the trauma bays at the hospital, such as radiology booms and rapid infusers.

"I'm excited that you guys are interested in trauma care."

Helicopters staffed with doctors used to deliver patients to Prince George Regional Hospital. This army chopper landed at the hospital in August 1966

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