Helipad compromise wins support from divided Foggy Bottom ANC

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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)

A helipad planned for George Washington University Hospital advanced last week when Foggy Bottom’s advisory neighborhood commission supported the proposal in a narrow 3-2 vote.

A 1987 public nuisance law barred hospitals from building new heliports in D.C.’s residential neighborhoods, including Foggy Bottom. But the hospital at 900 23rd St. NW has been lobbying for a change, and Babak Sarani, George Washington’s director of trauma and acute care surgery, said multiple D.C. Council members have already indicated their support.

The District has one Level I trauma center with a helipad: MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Ward 5. Patients coming by helicopter to George Washington must land in Southwest and travel the rest of the way in an ambulance — which can take up to 45 minutes.

“Sirens cannot part the seas of traffic,” Sarani said. “Once you’re in gridlock, you’re in gridlock. … If someone’s having a stroke or a heart attack, they’re done for.”

After several months of deliberation, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End) reached a compromise with the hospital — intended to balance the hospital’s desire to receive emergency patients quickly against community concerns about helicopter noise and safety.

The agreement mandates that the helipad can receive only one helicopter at a time; only 175 helicopter trips per year will serve the helipad, aside from mass-casualty events; aircraft cannot exceed 15,000 pounds; the helipad cannot have a refueling station; the hospital cannot build more than one helipad; and a helicopter cannot idle on the pad. The helipad is expected to open by next September if all goes to plan, Sarani said.

ANC 2A member Florence Harmon was one of the commission’s opponents of the helipad compromise, expressing concerns about enforcing the agreement. “We’ve got all these people here who want protection, but this is just a leap of faith,” Harmon said at ANC 2A’s Sept. 7 meeting.

Sarani said that even absent the agreement, practical considerations would limit the hospital’s helipad use. “Even if we wanted to land helicopters all day, all night, we literally would not be able to accept that flight, because there’s no place to put the person,” Sarani said.