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Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Officials Field Questions About Noise from New Helipad

Staff assure neighbors that while there have been more flights than expected, helicopters are accepted only for life-threatening situations

About 40 members of the public heard from Cottage Health System officials Tuesday night about noise concerns stemming from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital’s recently installed helipad.

The hospital has had 28 patients airlifted to the hospital since the helipad opened Feb. 3, with each case a critical one. Of the flights that have occurred, six have been trauma related, six have been for critically ill children and 16 have been stroke victims.

“We are doing everything we can think of to see that it is only used in a life-threatening situation,” Cottage Health System President/CEO Ron Werft said.

Werft admitted that there have been more flights than expected, and the first week of use brought 13 flights in and out of the hospital, alarming neighbors.

“We feel overlooked, and we’re stressed,” resident Riki Berlin said. “I feel heartbroken about the loss of an amazing neighborhood. ... It felt very shocking that this was at the end of all of the construction.”

A quarter of the flights landed between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., prompting many of the residents to complain about being woken up during the night. Complaints have also come before the Santa Barbara City Council, and five members were at Tuesday night’s meeting, as well as Mayor Helene Schneider.

As a result of the complaints, out-of area helicopter companies have been notified of the hospital’s policies and reminded of the flight path, which runs up and down the Highway 101 corridor and turns in at Junipero. Pilots are also to advise the hospital of their estimated times of arrival, not to refuel and then return to pick up the crew, and are to understand that there’s no hovering permitted in the area. If pilots have to wait to land, they’re supposed to hover over the ocean or land at the airport.

The hospital has already suspended one company that violated the rules multiple times.

Victims of stroke, bleeding in the brain and critically ill children all meet hospital criteria to be transported to the helipad.

Quick transport is essential in cases of stroke, and if doctors can get to the patient within six hours, they can be helped a great deal, according to Dr. Ed Wroblewski, Cottage Hospital’s chief medical officer, who reviews all requests for air transports before arrival.

Dr. Chris Flynn, emergency department medical director, said that when he looked at the 28 cases transported by helipad, he knew they were critical.

“I can tell you with assurance ... those were the right decisions,” he said. “The emergency department doesn’t look at this as a new toy.”

The hospital has also turned away helicopters that weren’t critical.

Several weeks ago, a search and rescue helicopter not affiliated with Cottage flew over the neighborhood after rescuing a hiker with a fractured ankle. Because the person didn’t meet the emergency criteria, the helicopter landed at Tucker’s Grove Park and the patient was transported to the hospital via ambulance.

The average noise time from choppers starting and winding down totals four minutes, and several residents asked about whether quieter helicopters could be required. Hospital officials said they have asked companies that may be planning replacements to consider “whisper aircraft.”

Another resident asked that a less-disruptive flight path be considered, and lights from the helicopters were also an issue for residents.

Some called for another environmental impact report. The number of flights is more than double what was projected in the 1999 and 2005 planning documents done, according to Werft, but added that the number of flights was necessary.

“If it would take eliminating a program or curtailing flights for people who need it, we’re not doing that,” he said.

One resident suggested the formation of a committee made up of neighborhood associations, residents and Cottage staff. Werft said he liked the idea.

“Maybe this a good launching pad for more formal dialogue,” he said.

Cottage’s next neighborhood meeting is scheduled for May 15. Anyone with questions or comments can call Cottage’s project management hot line at 805.569.8917.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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