Lobbying efforts by local search and rescue groups have resulted in a re-examination of the Whistler Health Centre’s helipad access by Vancouver Coastal Health officials.
Consultants that worked on the original upgrade to the helipad were in the resort last week to provide training for staff and as a result of community feedback about the limitations of the helipad, VCH opted to have them re-examine the area and prepare a report about what added work is needed to allow single engine helicopters to land.
It adds another chapter to the ongoing story that saw the helipad closed for 15 months in order for it to be upgraded to Transport Canada standards.
That upgrade, however, only provided for twin engine helicopters to land at the Health Care Centre, which accommodates the provincial Air Ambulance service, but limits local backcountry rescue response.
Executive Director of Capital Projects with VCH Brent Alley said the feedback locally has opened the door to considering altering the area surrounding the helipad in order for single engine helicopters to land.
“We are open to considering it and our job is to help serve the community from a health perspective,” Alley said. “The issue is that a lot of people in mountain rescue do not use twin engine aircraft and that does mean a transfer, which adds time to get someone in care and we understand that.”
Brad Sills with Whistler Search and Rescue said the work is a collaborative effort between VCH, SAR, the Resort Municipality of Whistler and the Air Ambulance service to find a resolution to reinstating single engine helicopter usage.
“I am happy to say all the parties are working collaboratively together,” Sills said.
He added Whistler is unique in terms of the types and locations of accidents to which local search and rescue operations respond and the fact that VCH is examining the helipad again shows a recognition and a better understanding of the area’s needs.
“The flight characteristics of a twin engine helicopter are well suited for reliability and proximity to the ground, but unfortunately those engines do not perform that well at high altitude,” Sills said, adding backcountry rescue responses often requires accessing terrain at higher altitudes. “While they are suitable for landing at the helipad they are not suitable for search and rescue work.”
Blackcomb Aviation carries out search and rescue and medical evacuation efforts in the Sea to Sky region using its fleet of 16 helicopters — 11 of which are single engine.
The concern is that if patients are extracted from the backcountry with a single engine helicopter they must then land at the municipal heliport north of Emerald Estates and take an 11-minute ambulance ride into the Health Care Centre.
Alley said the primary reason the work was not considered originally was because the previous town council in Whistler did not support the added tree cutting.
Single and twin engine helicopters have different approach patterns and additional trees would have to be removed to accommodate the choppers and lower light standards installed.
“That is why we did not go further with it,” Alley said. “The previous council was not supportive of tree cutting.
“The mandate that we had was that the primary service for the heliport is Air Ambulance access.”
B.C.’s fleet of Air Ambulances are all twin engines, so the upgrade was necessary to meet Transport Canada’s requirements for those aircraft to land locally.
“The funding to do initial work was based on the fact that Transport Canada in 2010 had new guidelines and standards that we had to follow so we were upgrading a whole series of helipads,” he said.
While the report has been commissioned, Alley said if there is a proposed project to further upgrade the helipad access, who exactly would pay for that work is still to be determined.