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WKMH needs certified heliport




by Debbie Johnson

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Walter Knox Memorial Hospital received notice in a letter dated Dec. 6, 2002, that effective on that date, no emergency helicopter services would be able to land at the hospital to transport patients needing quick transfer to Boise facilities.


WKMH Chief Executive Officer Max Long reported that no reason was given, simply that the FAA had revoked the heliport’s landing rights, and that it was no longer an approved site. He went on to state that apparently Walter Knox was not the only hospital recently shut down, that at least two others that he knew of were in the same boat. Long continued, saying that he had attempted to contact Boise office FAA Director Nick Weber, Lifeflight (associated with St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center) and US Senator Larry Craig. Since this issue came to light, others have become involved in an attempt to clarify and rectify the situation.


The letter reads:


“Dear Mr. Long:


Enclosed you will find copies of letters sent by this office to our local helicopter air ambulance operators, regarding the continued use of hospital heliports that may not have met the requirements of FAR Part 157, requiring notification to the FAA prior to such use.


It has recently come to this office's attention that several hospital heliports may not understand the regulatory or safety nature of our concerns. While our previous letters were fairly clear as to these requirements, perhaps we did not fully communicate the importance of your compliance, or the consequences of failing to comply with these regulations.


Please take the time to review the enclosed letters, to reacquaint yourself with the safety issues we have concerning continued use of these heliports. We have been more than patient in allowing over three years time for hospital heliport owners to bring these locations into full compliance with the Federal Aviation Regulations.


It is important to also note that the heliport owner and the helicopter operator share responsibility for any safety issues that have not been resolved. While the FAA is reluctant to deprive a community of needed patent transport, we are equally reluctant to allow safety issues affecting helicopter crews and other persons to remain unresolved.


Therefore, this letter is to inform you that operations into your heliport are contrary to the Federal Aviation Regulations, due to your failure to obtain prior approval via the provisions of FAR Part 157, and you may be subject to legal enforcement action.




Nick Weber,


Principal Operations Inspector”


Ken Sheldon, chief flight paramedic at LifeFlight, stated that the FAA–specifically Weber–was behind the shut down. Sheldon stated that the FAA requires a certain amount of paperwork, including written policies and procedures on such safety issues as vehicle and pedestrian traffic surrounding the heliport. Sheldon went on to say that he believed that when Weber began his job several years ago, he probably became aware of the Idaho hospital heliports not meeting specifications at that time, and began to take steps to rectify that situation. Although Sheldon said that he believes even though the FAA did not communicate well with the several hospitals involved, informing them of the requirements and deficits thereof, his pilots would no longer land at WKMH as they are subject to citations if they do so. Sheldon further stated that LifeFlight had continued to land at WKMH because, “We have been safely operating out of Emmett for 16 years. We know the location and any obstacles that may be present. It is less dangerous for us to land there than at an accident site. We do not believe there is, now, any increased risk to the public or patients in working out of the Emmett hospital. We operate in a safe and sane manner as we have for the past 16 years.”


Mark Warbis, an aide to Representative Butch Otter, spoke with Lewis Sanders, assistant manager for the Boise FAA office. Sanders informed him that the heliport was not “de-certified” because it, in fact, had never been “certified” in the first place. Sanders stated that the FAA had written letters over the past three years requesting compliance in the certification process, but had received no paperwork from WKMH, “until now.” An application for certification, submitted by Long, arrived at the Boise FAA office last week, according to Sanders.


The Messenger Index obtained copies of those earlier letters from the FAA to the providers and found that they were dated Sept. 20, 1999, Dec. 8, 1999, Dec. 18, 2001 and April 8, 2002. When asked about previous notification, Long again stated that he had received none from either the FAA or the providers (Air St. Lukes or LifeFlight) that there was a problem.


Steve Salskov, acting chairman of the board of directors at WKMH stated that, “To my knowledge, the FAA never communicated with the hospital; we were never notified of a problem before the letter of Dec. 6 shutting it down.”


The first time Salskov became aware of the earlier letters was last Thursday, Jan. 2, 2003, at a meeting in the Messenger Index office.


Gem County Commission Chair Ed Mansfield was also at the MI meeting and had been unaware of this crisis until questioned about the course the commissioners would take in addressing this issue, since the hospital is under their auspices. After doing his own investigation and assuring himself that the application was now in the office of the FAA and would be addressed this week, he stated, “I’m sure that the commissioners will be taking a look at this problem.”


The commissioners, at their Monday meeting this week, began to ask questions in an attempt to unravel this snarl of information. In his report, Gem County Director of Emergency Services Mark Rekow stated that he had been hearing “rumors” that the heliport at WKMH was in danger of being shut down “several months ago, but nothing official.” In mid-November, during a requested helicopter transport from Sweet, fog in the area necessitated that the transport take place from the hospital instead. He was told at that point that the hospital site was closed to transport.


With the closure of the helipad at WKMH, patients must be transported to the Gem County airport and transferred to a helicopter. Rekow stated that, in some ways, this situation is no worse than bad weather preventing landing of a helicopter. “Until it gets settled, we will adjust and do whatever is necessary to take care of our patients and provide the best service possible under whatever circumstances.”


He went on to say that this issue needed to be addressed and handled as soon as possible. “Because it could become a matter of life and death.”


At press time, the closing of the helipad had not endangered any patients. “We had one who we transported to the airport for transportation via LifeFlight to Boise,” Rekow said.


When asked if this caused any increased danger to the patient, Rekow replied, “No.”


One Emmett resident had to be transported directly by ambulance to a Boise hospital with congestive heart failure, although his wife stated that “the doctor wanted to send him by LifeFlight. The doctors are frustrated. And so are the EMTs.” She further stated that she and her husband had maintained a LifeFlight membership because of his condition, but now expects to get billed by the ambulance company for his recent transport.


In another twist, Air St. Lukes, who had not been using the WKMH pad, landed on the grassy area near WKMH last Sunday morning to transport a patient. When asked about the authorization for this landing, Air St. Lukes Director Michael McGrane reported that he had received notification that a 30-day “reprieve” had been given.


Neither the Boise nor the Renton, WA FAA offices verified that they sent or verbalized such a reprieve. Bill Watson, from the Renton office did state that in the application itself, there is a statement allowing a “less than 30-day intermittent use (no more than 10 operations per day; no more than three days/week) following submission of the application. He speculated that, “Perhaps that is the ‘reprieve’ you were told about.”


Weber stated that the next step “was up to the hospital.” He did say that a proposed helipad had appeared on the original blue prints for the hospital expansion three years ago and FAA representatives came to Emmett and approved the plans as detailed on those blueprints. “Apparently,” he said, “somewhere along the way, they decided not to build the new pad. We didn’t know that.” He went on to say that the FAA had been unaware that Emmett was operating as a heliport.


It appears that the original approval was sent by the FAA to CTA Architects, filed, and never forwarded to the hospital. Weber also said the site suggested in the application submitted last week was a different site altogether from the one on the blueprints.


When asked why the FAA did not communicate directly with the hospital prior to shutting down the helipad on Dec. 6, Weber made two points: First, that Emmett did not have a certified helipad so in their view, there was nothing to be shut down, and what the FAA had done was to notify providers that pilots would be cited if they landed at any location not approved by the FAA. Secondly, he stated that it is the responsibility of the providers to notify and work with sites toward certification.


Both LifeFlight and Air St. Lukes stated that they had, in fact, been working with WKMH and with Long, specifically, prior to Dec. 6.


The Messenger Index obtained a copy of a letter from Air St. Lukes to Long, dated Oct. 10, 2002, stating, “We were recently notified by the FAA Flight District Standards Office that...the landing site at Walter Knox Memorial Hospital [is] closed due to safety concerns or the lack of formal acceptance by the FAA.”


The letter further states, “We are committed to helping you in any way we can to address the FAA’s specific concerns with your site, and to reopen it as soon as possible.” The letter states that Air St. Lukes appointed Ed Keeton “to be at point” to specifically assist the hospital toward this end.


A meeting subsequently took place at the Emmett Police Department between Chief of Police Blaine Hyde, Officer Brad Newell, Long and Keeton to address safety issues, specifically traffic control during a landing and take-off. A letter was drafted regarding EPD’s inability to guarantee traffic control during every emergency.


Hyde stated, “If my guys are at a crash site, for example, I might not have someone who is able to go to the hospital. We intend to, and have probably come close to, being there every time thus far, but it is not possible to guarantee, in writing, that we always can. We are working on a plan with the Sheriff’s department to cooperate to provide that.”


Sheldon stated that LifeFlight also had been working with the hospital to address FAA concerns. He recalled the approximate dates as being between October, 2000 and January, 2001. Sheldon alleges (although he cannot locate the documents described) that during that time, a plan was written to address the FAA warnings that “...continued use of these (including WKMH) heliports may be a violation of FAA regulations.” He said that this plan was signed by the hospital administrator. Sheldon further stated that he has had numerous phone calls with Long discussing the FAA concerns.


Upon being presented with the October letter at the MI office last Thursday, Solskov stated that neither he nor the board had been aware of the FAA approval of the helipad blueprints three years ago or the uncertified status of the landing site that has been in use. “If the Board had known the helipad plans had been approved by the FAA or that there was any danger of the site that was in use being shut down, we would have had it [the new helipad] built long ago,” he said.


At that same meeting there was some discussion about speeding up the process of getting a new helipad built by declaring an emergency. Mansfield stated, “Although, at this point, he [Gem County Counsel Richard Linville] might say, ‘If you’ve known about it since October, why is it an emergency now?’”


In response to calls from several sources, Senators Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, in addition to Rep. Otter, have offered their assistance in facilitating a quick solution to this problem.


The Commissioners were scheduled to further explore this issue Monday afternoon, with hospital chief executive officer, Long. In addition, a meeting was to be held yesterday (Tuesday) in Boise with all involved players at Craig’s office to attempt to mediate an acceptable agreement, according to Brenda Tonabe, aide to Sen. Craig.

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