After months of fierce debate and negotiation, the Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Council finally passed an agreement to support the use of a proposed helipad on the hospital roof. Now that the neighborhood governing group has approved the helipad, the D.C. Council should expeditiously pass an exception to an existing law preventing new helipad construction in residential areas. This will save lives and improve D.C.’s resiliency to mass casualty events.
Over the past several months, hospital representatives have patiently listened to a host of complaints from area residents, many seeming to stem purely from a general unwillingness to accept change. After extensive testing, consultations and meetings, the ANC passed the agreement last week restricting the allowable number of potentially life-saving flights per year to 175, with exceptions for law enforcement-requested flights.
The GW Hospital is currently one of two level-one trauma centers operating in the District, making the capability to airlift patients to the facility even more important. Level-one trauma centers, which treat patients suffering from major traumatic injuries, are designated as the highest standard on a scale of one to five by the American College of Surgeons. The different levels are based on the number of specialty doctors on-call, the equipment and surgical facilities available and the ability to provide continuous care throughout the recovery process. This means patients from around the DMV area with critical traumatic injuries are often transported to GW Hospital even if there are closer medical facilities available. This can cost precious minutes, since the only mode of transport available to GW Hospital is ambulance. The combination of critically injured patients and long transport distances highlights the need for rapid transportation. The approval of the helipad is critical for improving the level of care in the region.
Rush-hour vehicle speeds across D.C. can vary from languid to downright glacial. Medical transport helicopters, on the other hand, routinely operate at speeds of 120 miles per hour. But without an attached helipad, GW can only accept these patients by flying them into the South Capitol Street Heliport — located near Navy Yard — and then transporting them to the hospital in an ambulance. The hospital has reported cases of patients dying during transport from the heliport. According to a study on the subject, patients are about 16 percent more likely to survive an incident when airlifted, rather than being driven, to a hospital. Thus, without helipad approval, critically ill patients will continue to be subjected to an unnecessary risk of death.
The ANC took up the issue late last year to address resident fears that the helipad would be disruptive, excessively noisy and dangerous. To assuage noise fears, the hospital conducted noise tests with microphones mounted on neighborhood buildings while a helicopter flew anticipated approach routes. They found that the helicopter flights generated slightly lower noise levels than the ambulance sirens that already dominate the neighborhood soundtrack. Although many question the safety of helicopter operations and studies suggest that they do crash about 35 percent more often than planes, the crashes are less severe, leading to a slightly lower fatality rate. If the planes flying into Reagan National Airport are not a safety concern for residents, neither should the helicopters landing at the hospital.
Students at GW appear to be generally supportive of the measure, based on feedback at the meetings. In the recent congressional baseball shooting in Virginia, where six victims, including Rep. Steve Scalise, were shot, helicopters were used to transport victims from the baseball field to D.C. hospitals. The hospital has also pointed to this incident as an example of an instance where having the ability to airlift to the hospital would improve the resiliency of D.C.’s mass casualty response.
It is imperative the D.C. Council not waste a year debating the helipad proposal and instead swiftly move to approve the plan. Failure to do so will cost the lives of more patients. At the end of the day, the plan’s negative impact on neighborhood tranquility is far outweighed by the potential to save lives. The D.C. Council should move immediately to approve the rooftop helipad to improve the District’s ability to respond to a mass casualty incident and prevent the deaths of more patients stuck in traffic on their way to the GW Hospital.
Kendrick Baker, a senior double-majoring in political science and economics, is a Hatchet columnist.
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