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Vail helipad plan gets detailed hearing

VAIL — A plan for renovations and additions at Vail Valley Medical Center is big ambitious and in some ways controversial. At this point many of the questions about the plan are about a proposed new helipad at the site.

The Vail Town Council Tuesday got its first look at details for the proposed pad and medical center officials brought a number of people to talk about current plans. The helipad is just part of the overall master facilities plan being reviewed by town officials. The plan has already gone through the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission — which approved it with conditions — and is now before the Town Council. The council is expected to hold two more hearings on elements of the plan and could vote to approve the plan at its March 17 meeting. The first phase of the $100 million project is expected to begin this year.

The plan includes moving the hospital's entrance — including moving the main entrance to Vail's South Frontage Road. Other elements of the plan include creating a new emergency department and adding a fourth floor to the hospital's west wing.


But Tuesday the discussion focused on a facility used just more than once a week on average. Since 2009 an average of 73 air ambulance flights per year use the existing helipad in Vail which is on the west side of the town's municipal office campus.

Reg Franciose the medical center's trauma surgeon told council members that using the existing pad is complex and can compromise safety. Currently patients must be loaded into an ambulance taken to the helipad then flown to a hospital in the Denver area. The frontage road also must be closed during landing and takeoff. It's a system Franciose called “adequate but not optimal.”

“Each move is wasted time and dangerous” Franciose added. And time is critical when a patient needs to be flown.

Dr. Jenna Rosenthal a pediatric specialist at the medical center said that two babies she's cared for are alive because an air ambulance was available. Sometimes when a mother's health is also in danger two lives are at stake Rosenthal said.

Local resident Ed Swinford told the council that he was told by doctors he had about 20 minutes to spare when he was flown to Denver with a sepsis infection.

The current plan calls for the new helipad to be located atop a parking structure on the northwest corner of the medical center's property adjacent to the frontage road and near the current entrance to the Evergreen Lodge. While the proposed site is only a few hundred feet closer to the hospital than the current site Franciose said the new site would enable patients to be moved to the helipad through indoor corridors.

The time factor affects more than patients. Chris Montera of Eagle County Paramedic Services said every transfer to an air ambulance takes a ground ambulance out of service for roughly an hour.

Some have suggested that a tunnel could connect the hospital with the current pad site. Council member Dale Bugby asked Franciose to explain why that wouldn't work.

“There's a whole bunch of stuff attached to a patient” Franciose said.

If a patient has some sort of emergency while being wheeled down a tunnel Franciose said the transfer crew would be caught far away from essential help.


Area residents have questioned the safety of moving the helipad closer to hotels condos and homes.

Rex Alexander of HeliExperts a consulting company hired by the medical center told council members that in the roughly 40 years of the air ambulance business in the U.S. there has never been a civilian death resulting from an accident flying into or out of a hospital. And Alexander said rooftop helipads are becoming a standard practice in the health care industry. Many of those hospitals require specific regulations and guidelines for flights and Alexander said Vail's hospital would have similar guidelines including what companies are allowed to use the helipad.

But some residents remain leery of moving a helipad closer to their homes.

“We're compromising safety” Ron Snow an owner at the Scorpio condominiums said urging the council to not approve the new helipad.

Covell Brown a property owner on West Meadow Drive the street that runs along the southern border of the medical center campus also urged the council to think carefully about a new helipad site.

“You're being challenged with thinking about what's the right thing to do” Brown said. “You need to think carefully about your own biases.”

Brown also urged the council to gather its own information rather than rely only on expert opinions from people hired by the medical center.

The town has hired aviation consultant Ray Stanton who told the council that he's working both for the elected officials and town residents.

Asked by council member Margaret Rogers if there was anything in Tuesday's presentation he disagreed with Stanton said what he's seen so far seems to be an accurate representation of what's been proposed and current conditions.

“I'll tell you if I find that disagreement” he said.