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.