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Where will Vail hospital's helipad sit?

Scott Miller

VAIL — Air ambulance service into and out of Vail isn't frequent but it is important. Where to land those helicopter flights is a big part of Vail Valley Medical Center's future facilities plan.

There was one flight from Vail to another hospital about once every five days in 2013. Those flights now land and take off from a site just to the west of the town of Vail's municipal campus. Those flights can be complicated for patients medical staff and people who happen to be driving on the town's South Frontage Road.

That's why hospital officials want an on-site helipad as part of a years-long $100 million renovation plan.

According to information provided by medical center CEO Doris Kirchner here's how the system works now:

• A patient must be loaded into an ambulance and driven the short distance from the hospital to the helipad. That takes an ambulance crew out of action. It also requires disconnecting and reconnecting that patient from whatever monitors or intravenous lines he or she requires.

• Because of Federal Aviation Administration rules the Vail Police Department must stop traffic on South Frontage Road while a helicopter lands and takes off. That takes officers off the road.

• An email from Kirchner stated that a patient transfer to a helicopter can take between 20 and 60 minutes and exposes a patient to “transfer risks.”

Beyond those complications the current helipad sits on property owned by the Colorado Department of Transportation. That state agency could conceivably order a halt to future flights from the property although Vail Community Development Department Director George Ruther said state officials seem willing to allow continued use of the site for the foreseeable future.

To streamline the patient-transfer process medical center officials are proposing a helipad on hospital property. That site would be at the northwest corner of the medical center's current parking structure located along South Frontage Road between the old US Bank building and the Evergreen Lodge.

That landing site would be built as part of a major renovation of the existing parking structure and would allow patients to be taken directly from the hospital to the helicopter. That facility could be ready by 2019.

Ruther said the current proposed site is one of nine that town and medical center officials examined. Some of those sites wouldn't pass muster with federal aviation rules. Others were dismissed because they aren't on medical center property.

That plan is currently being looked over by the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission. The Vail Town Council will start its review of the plan in December although Ruther said hearings are likely to continue into early 2015.

Ruther said the process so far has gone smoothly.

“We've had great dialog and people have remained informed” he said.

But that doesn't mean people who live near the medical center all support the idea for a helipad on hospital property.

Merv Lapin is a longtime resident of West Meadow Drive and has long been skeptical about ideas to relocate the helipad.

While Lapin is a firm believer in the need for air ambulance service to the medical center he said the current plan falls short of what he'd like to see. Looking at the plans Lapin said the helipad would be 75 feet above South Frontage Road. That's too tall for the area he said.

Lapin also believes that medical center and town officials still aren't presenting a “realistic” solution to questions about safety and effects on the residential area near the hospital. Lapin said he'd prefer to see the helipad stay at its current site or somewhere on adjacent town-owned land.

Kirchner's email noted that there has never been an accident in 30 years of air ambulance service to Vail. That email added that the medical center has hired aviation consultants to help determine the best location for the new helipad and that modern helicopters have “advanced safety equipment” that includes night vision and other technology to allow safe flights into and out of Vail.

“The goal of the proposed helipad is to save lives and improve medical outcomes” Kirchner wrote.