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Residents Raise Noise Issue At Public Meeting

By Staff | Sep 23, 2009

This could be a familiar sight if the Wetzel County Commission gives the approval to enter into a lease agreement with Air Evac EMS, Inc., to locate a base of operations at Wetzel County Hospital. A public meeting to discuss the matter was held Monday evening, with residents in close proximity asking the most questions. The property would be leased so the company could install a hangar, office space, and a mobile barrack that would house the personnel who are on-call 24 hours, seven days a week. (Photo by Amy Witschey)

Concerns about noise, flight paths, and even aesthetics filled the Wetzel County Hospital conference room Monday evening during a public meeting about the possibility of Air Evac EMS, Inc., locating at the facility.

Of the approximately 60 citizens who packed the room, only nine spoke. Six of those reside in homes very close to the helipad and voiced concerns while the remaining three attendees spoke in favor of the proposal. Those three were New Martinsville Councilman Joel Potts; Ray Renaud, member of the Grandview Volunteer Fire Department who presented a letter of support from the Wetzel County Firefighters Association; and George Friedline, vice president of the WCH Board of Trustees.

“It is very important your voices be heard,” said WCH Chief Executive Officer George Couch at the outset of the meeting.

Andy Arthurs, senior director of base operations for Air Evac gave a detailed presentation about the company, its beginnings, and safety precautions. “Rural Americans are three times more likely to die from traumatic injury or illness than their urban counterparts,” noted Arthurs, referring to the reason Air Evac began its operations almost 25 years ago. It was founded in West Plains, Mo., after a couple residents there died from illnesses that could have presumably been helped with quicker access to care.

Air Evac operates 89 bases in 14 states in areas where Arthurs said other providers often may not go due to low population density, high Medicaid population, poor reimbursement, and other factors.

The company has over 100 Bell 206 Long Range helicopters, which he said were “rated one of the safest helicopters in the world.” In the wake of a bad year (2008) for emergency helicopters in terms of safety, the Federal Aviation Administration has identified four primary initiatives. “We had those in place over a year before they were recommended,” said Arthurs.

Marge Knight, R.N., WCH Chief of Emergency/Outpatient Services, outlined the approximately 90 minutes it currently takes to get an acute trauma patient out by helicopter. She said if Air Evac was based at the hospital and a helicopter was there at the time of the incident, approximately one hour of that transition/wait time would be eliminated. In heart emergencies, she said every 15 minutes of delay in reaching acute care results in a 50 percent increase in heart damage. “Cardiologists tell us many times they are waiting for the patient, scalpel in hand,” said Knight.

“Nothing is more frustrating than waiting for a transfer,” said Knight. “If it was your grandchild or loved one, would you want that delay?”

While Air Evac would take flights to other locations even if based at WCH, Arthurs said he would expect that 90 percent of WCH’s outgoing flights would be serviced by an Air Evac helicopter.

Bruce Campbell, who resides near WCH, said to Air Evac, “There is some disagreement on your safety record.”

Arthurs said that the statistics can be deceiving. No other emergency air transport company operates under one Part 135 Certificate. The industry safety records are based on incidents per 100,000 hours flown. Most companies, he said, need 25-30 years of operation to reach that threshold while Air Evac’s over 100 helicopters can do that in about 20 months. They have had four incidents or accidents, which is less than the national average across those being tracked.

He also noted that an incident is anything that causes damage to an aircraft.

Air Evac has had two fatal accidents: December 2007 and August 2008. After the latter incident, which he said was determined to be from an anomaly equipment manufacturing problem, they even went to the trouble of x-raying all of their helicopter blades to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

“We obviously take this very seriously,” said Arthurs.

To questions of noise and flight paths, Base Pilot Supervisor Phil Wiley, of New Martinsville, said he would personally make sure that the safest, most unobtrusive paths are used. However, sometimes weather makes what might seem the most desirable paths impossible.

He further said having Air Evac based at the hospital will mean the majority of pilots flying in and out of the facility will be intimately familiar with the terrain and community. Of particular concern was New Martinsville School where approximately 900 students and 100 adults are located on school days.

Wiley said he does not fly over NMS and would instruct other Air Evac pilots to also avoid that education institution’s air space.

Trish Eller, resident of the area, asked why Air Evac’s operations could not be based at the New Martinsville Airport, like it is currently located at the Ohio County Airport.

“For us to come serve your community it has to be at the hospital,” said Arthurs. He cited a few reasons for that stance, primarily that patients need to be able to be transported directly from the hospital to the helicopter to cut down the transfer time Knight stated. He also said they want to become part of the community at large, and more specifically the emergency medical community. In order to do that, they must have a presence at the hospital.

Further, it was noted by various attendees that the airport floods and is often hampered by fog as it is located beside the Ohio River.

Couch answered a question from resident Brent Smith of what WCH would get from having Air Evac located at the facility. He said the county commission has indicated that all of the lease payments from Air Evac would go to the county’s EMS squads, so there is no direct financial benefit. However, he said it would lend credibility to the emergency services at WCH, giving them the ability to get patients out faster and help save more lives. Also, he said that would all in turn hopefully lend to the future financial stability of the institution.

Smith also asked for a breakdown of the expected air traffic; if they would be flying out of WCH to go to on-scene needs. The latter question was answered in the positive. Those flights were considered when coming up with an estimate of 30-35 flights per month, said Arthurs. There are currently 10-15 flights per month at WCH now.

Area resident Wendy Tallman wanted to know how the buildings would fit into the area. Arthurs said they would make the outside of the building blend as best as possible with nearby structures. “It will be done well; it’s not going to be a Taj Mahal,” he said, noting they have never had a complaint of aesthetics at their other operations.

To finalize the meeting, Arthurs said, “We are not going to do this perfect. I promise you that. We really do want to be right for your community.”

The ultimate decision as to whether or not Air Evac can lease the property beside the WCH helipad is up to the Wetzel County Commission. They have not made that decision yet, however documents have been drafted. They expect to make that decision in about two weeks.