ANC tentatively backs compromise on GWU Hospital helipad plan

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George Washington University Hospital is proposing to install a helipad at the building's southwest corner, near the corner of 24th and I streets NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/July 2017)

The United States was hit with two hurricanes this month: Texas’ Harvey and Florida’s Irma. With many hospitals sitting in the path of the storms, officials were forced to evacuate hundreds of patients.

The quickest way to get a patient to or from a hospital is often by helicopter. But a 1987 “public nuisance” law bars hospitals from adding new helipads in the District’s residential neighborhoods. Last year, former Ward 7 D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander proposed legislation to amend the ban and permit hospital helipads, in part to accommodate a mass-casualty event.

Although Alexander has since left office and the ban still remains in place, George Washington University Hospital is pushing ahead with efforts to build a helipad atop its 380-bed Foggy Bottom facility, located at 900 23rd St. NW.

Last Wednesday, the proposal won preliminary support on a 5-1 vote with one abstention from Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End) — the same commission that successfully pushed for the ban 30 years ago.

Commissioners decided to delay a final vote and formalize the decision at its Sept. 19 meeting in order to allow hospital officials time to define certain terms of their proposal more clearly.

To ease neighbors’ concerns and persuade council members to overturn the law, the hospital agreed to a number of restrictions on helipad usage. According to the agreement, the helipad could be used up to three times per week only for “life or death” scenarios, and no more than 175 flights would be made per year, aside from mass casualty events. But ANC 2A member Florence Harmon raised particular concerns about some definitions, requesting clarification on terms such as “mass-casualty” and “emergent” patients.

In ANC 2A chair Patrick Kennedy’s view, even having an agreement is remarkable. Although some neighbors oppose any support for a helipad, Kennedy believes it’s only a matter of time before a disaster affects the city and the council lifts the hospital helipad ban. “My goal is to get a change to the law on favorable terrain to the neighborhood,” Kennedy told The Current.

Supporters in the community also point to the medical benefits of the helipad. At the meeting, hospital officials said that a helipad would save lives and enable patients citywide to access its Level I trauma center. “We really think the additional 30 minutes, 45 minutes in an ambulance could change the outcome,” project lead and physician Babak Sarani said at the meeting.

The District currently has only one Level I trauma center with a helipad — MedStar Washington Hospital Center, which is able to accept only seven patients at a time.

George Washington has pledged to create a 1-800 line for residents to register concerns about the helipad. But Sarani said neighbors shouldn’t worry about an increase in the number of helicopter trips because the hospital cannot be expanded and it already operates at or near capacity.

Some neighbors wondered whether funding for a helipad would be better used on more foundational needs like staff and supplies, citing some negative reviews patients have shared of the hospital.

In an email, Sarani wrote that George Washington Hospital is on solid footing. According to Sarani, the hospital has invested over $100 million dollars in the past few years to upgrade or maintain equipment and to hire additional nurses.

The hospital’s helipad consultant, longtime helicopter pilot Mike Conklin, has said he’s confident that the project will benefit D.C. without impeding the community’s quality of life. A noise and vibration study conducted April 1 found the helipad’s impacts to be negligible, Conklin said, adding that a hospital helicopter would be much smaller than heavier military machines.

According to some neighbors, three helicopters a week wouldn’t make a difference to Foggy Bottom because the area is already inundated with a range of noisy vehicles. Every day, helicopters, planes, ambulances and motorcades pass by the downtown nook, courtesy of its central location and proximity to the White House.

Some opponents contend that George Washington University Hospital’s helipad was a business decision. Nearby Georgetown University Hospital also intends to construct a helipad if the ban is lifted and currently uses a patch of concrete a short distance away as a makeshift helipad.

George Washington University Hospital surgeon Libby Schroeder said at the meeting that the helipad would only be used to ferry patients in life-threatening conditions.

“We as the physicians make the decision about whether that patient should be flown in, or whether they should come in an ambulance,” Schroeder said. “At no point is any business person involved in the phone call. There is no discussion of insurance — this is all a matter of the patient’s life.”