Editorial: Lateral thinking

Inspires Vertical Landing
Drew McCarthy
October 15, 2007
By
The most ingenious solutions are often the simplest. Once presented, they usually elicit a collective: “What a great idea!” reaction. Dr. Christopher Mazza, president and CEO of Ontario’s air ambulance system, Ornge, deserves credit for coming up with just such an idea.

Dr. Mazza’s idea came as the result of travelling across Ontario in search of strategic helipad locations. Strategic locations are important when responding to trauma cases. In such situations, victims have suffered injuries that require immediate surgical intervention. To benefit from such intervention, they must be transported as quickly as possible to a designated trauma unit.  The first 60 minutes – the golden hour – is considered to be critical for patient survival. Well-placed helipads allow helicopter pilots and flight paramedics to respond rapidly, shortening response times and improving patient care.
In many parts of the province it is simply impossible to get trauma victims to trauma centres within the prescribed period of time using land-based ambulance services.

Thinking outside the box, Dr. Mazza noted that there are a large number of gravel pits and quarries throughout the province. Typically, such sites are found in rural and semi-rural areas; they are normally unencumbered by wires, towers or overhanging trees; they are almost always close to major highways or roads; and they usually have controlled access, which prohibits members of the general public from being able to just wander onto the site.

In short, these are ideal places to land a helicopter and because of the major highway access, land ambulances are generally able to get to and from theses sites with maximum efficiency.
Once the idea came to Dr. Mazza, the next step was for Ornge to approach the aggregate companies and ask them to donate the required spaces. According to Tom Lepine, Ornge’s vice-president of operations, all of the companies that have been approached have been very receptive.

“Not only do they think it’s a great idea,” says Lepine, “but most of them consider their involvement to be an ideal way to contribute to their respective communities.  Many of these sites are places of employment for local residents and these helipad sites offer a valuable resource to the people who live in the area.”  In addition to the aggregate industry sites, salt and sand depot sites operated by the Ministry of Transportation and sites operated by the Ministry of Natural Resources share similar characteristics, and are likewise being proposed.

Initially, Ornge consulted an inventory of possible sites to determine which ones would be the most appropriate. They considered factors such as: population bases, historical data showing from where patients traditionally come, and distances from proposed sites to current trauma centres in the province.

Ornge is now in the process of drawing up term sheets and agreements with collaborating parties. The discussions that are currently taking place between Ornge and these companies and government departments are based on sorting out the insurance and maintenance details. Lepine says that most of the organizations are happy to undertake the maintenance duties, which may amount to simply cutting the grass or removing the snow in winter.
 
A typical Ornge helipad is an area approximately 120 ft. x 120 ft. Landing surfaces vary and can be grass, pavement, cement or packed earth, and are marked out with retro-reflective landing systems helipad cones that require no electricity.

The proposed sites will have signage that informs the public of the existence of the helipad, demonstrates the company’s commitment to the community and gives the public a sense of security.
Currently in southern Ontario, the aggregate industry members being engaged include Aecon Civil & Utilities Group, Buckhorn Sand & Gravel, James Dick Construction Ltd., Lafarge North America Aggregates, The Miller Group and St Marys CBM. As well, MAAP (Management of Abandoned Aggregate Properties), Grand River Conservation Authority and Conservation Halton have all expressed a willingness to work with Ornge on the helipad expansion program.

The program is in its early stages, but looks very promising to date. Ornge is targeting 25 new helipad locations in central Ontario for 2007.

If all goes as expected, this program will establish an ongoing way of creating mission-appropriate, strategically-located helipad sites at little cost to Ornge and its partners. The program deserves to succeed. It is a shining example of how public and private interests can come together using a cost-effective model that improves the overall welfare of everyone involved.

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