Vernal helicopter moved from hospital after single complaint

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 28 2012 11:35 a.m. MDT

Medical personnel prepare to load a patient into an AirMed helicopter outside Ashley Regional Medical Center in Vernal on Friday, July 9, 2010.

Andre Salvail, Vernal Express

Enlarge photo»

VERNAL — A medical helicopter that has been based at Ashley Regional Medical Center for more than a year has been relocated following a single complaint to the Federal Aviation Administration.

"I believe just one citizen complained and made a big enough stink that he got an FAA inspector to come out," said Tony Henderson, president of Classic Aviation.

"We have not had a letter from the FAA saying you cannot operate off of (the hospital helipad), they just made a strong recommendation that we don't base off the helipad right now," Henderson said.  

The Woods Cross company operates Classic Lifeguard, an air ambulance service with operations in Arizona, Utah and Wyoming. It opened its Vernal base in April 2011. 

"Where our (Vernal) crews are based right now is only across the street from the helipad, so when there's a problem we can be into the ER, helping with getting the patient ready in a couple of minutes," Henderson said.

But a recent complaint to the FAA from someone living near the hospital has changed all that. The company has set up a temporary base two miles away in a hangar at Vernal Regional Airport.

"Now we have to drive to the airport and get all set up from there, do flight prep there and then fly over to the hospital and get the patient in," Henderson said. "So there's definitely some delays there."

Henderson described the complaint to the FAA as "more of a noise problem."

"It's not really a safety thing," he said.

But the Deseret News spoke with a man living near the hospital Friday who said safety is the primary concern.

The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing fear of retaliation, noted that the hospital and its helipad sit in the middle of a residential area with a number of mature trees. There have also been times when other medical helicopters have had to land in an intersection behind the hospital because Classic's helicopter was sitting on the helipad, he said.

"We usually only use the street if there's a need to have two helicopters, which means we've got two patients that need to be transferred," said Si Hutt, CEO of Ashley Regional Medical Center.

"To me, I don't really see that there's a safety issue with where (the helicopter) is at, so I'll be anxious to hear what the rationale is and the potential solutions," Hutt said.

The hospital's helipad was originally designed, not as a base of helicopter operations, but as a place for infrequent patient pickup and drop off. Classic Lifeguard estimates it makes at least one flight from Ashley Regional each day.

"We don't always come in the same way and depart the same way every time out of the hospital," Henderson said. "We try to be nice to residents around there and take different flight paths to cut down on the noise."

He called it "unfortunate" that one person's complaint has forced the relocation of the helicopter, which he said will lead to longer response times.

"There's that 'golden hour,' when a patient is in critical condition, that not having us based over at the hospital can delay response up to half an hour," Henderson said. "It could mean the loss of a life. 

"We are hopeful we can work something out with the FFA to have them have our inspector come out and see that it is a safe place," he said.

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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