A he­li­pad at GW could save lives

Tests have shown the noise im­pact would be min­i­mal.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

DRIV­ING THROUGH down­town Washington dur­ing rush hour is bad enough. If you are a pas­sen­ger in an am­bu­lance on your way to a trauma cen­ter, as Ge­orge Washington Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal’s di­rec­tor of trauma and acute care surgery pointed out to The Post, it can lit­er­ally kill you. Be­cause the fa­cil­ity does not have a he­li­pad, some gravely ill pa­tients find them­selves in ex­actly that sit­u­a­tion. The D.C. Coun­cil will soon have a chance to change that.

The coun­cil is re­think­ing a 1987 law that pro­hibits he­li­pads in res­i­den­tial ar­eas, the re­sult of a de­bate over the same prob­lem that plagues GW to­day: The Level 1 trauma cen­ter says more peo­ple are dy­ing be­cause it can­not air­lift them to its care. Foggy Bot­tom denizens say al­low­ing he­li­copters would threaten the neigh­bor­hood’s peace, quiet and safety. Res­i­dents won 30 years ago, but now the coun­cil might carve out an ex­cep­tion for GW — as­sum­ing the Ad­vi­sory Neigh­bor­hood Com­mis­sion of­fers its sup­port.

For some pa­tients, that ex­cep­tion could mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death. The only Level 1 trauma cen­ter in the city be­sides GW is the MedS­tar Washington Hos­pi­tal Cen­ter. In the event of a mass-ca­su­alty in­ci­dent, the MedS­tar could find it­self over­whelmed, while oth­ers in crit­i­cal con­di­tion lan­guished in am­bu­lances weav­ing through traf­fic to­ward Foggy Bot­tom. Trauma pa­tients, one study shows, are 16 per­cent more likely to sur­vive when air­lifted than when driven to care. Speed mat­ters, not only for vic­tims of vi­o­lence or other dis­as­ters but also for those suf­fer­ing from heart at­tacks and strokes.

To Foggy Bot­tom res­i­dents, noise mat­ters, too. But at a res­i­dent’s re­quest, the hos­pi­tal con­ducted a sound study that de­ter­mined an am­bu­lance was louder than a he­li­copter at all but the clos­est in­di­vid­ual site. In fact, be­cause the hos­pi­tal does not plan to take in more pa­tients with the chop­pers but only to take in the same num­ber more speed­ily, the neigh­bor­hood may ex­pe­ri­ence a net re­duc­tion in noise level. The same study con­cluded the he­li­copter’s vi­bra­tions would not dam­age the his­toric homes nearby.

Cit­i­zens also are con­cerned about he­li­copters fly­ing in a highly pop­u­lated area, though the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Administration has pre­lim­i­nar­ily deemed GW’s roof a safe spot for a he­li­pad. While it is true that med­i­cal he­li­copters can be dan­ger­ous, the prob­a­bil­ity of a fa­tal mishap re­mains slim — es­pe­cially mea­sured against the life-sav­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties of emer­gency air trans­port. Am­bu­lances crash, too, and Foggy Bot­tom is filled with pedes­tri­ans.

GW is work­ing with the ANC to come to an agree­ment that ad­dresses res­i­dents’ con­cerns where rea­son­able, likely cap­ping flights at 175 per year. When the is­sue reaches the coun­cil again, vot­ing to al­low the he­li­pad should be an easy choice. As one neigh­bor put it, if a Foggy Bot­tom res­i­dent wakes up at 3 a.m. to the sound of a he­li­copter, the pa­tient in­side it is hav­ing a much worse day than she is. And the noise she is hear­ing might be of a life be­ing saved.

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