September 24, 1999

VUMC’s most famous birds to get new nest atop VUH

Featured Image

VUMC's LifeFlight helicopters are a familiar sight in the Nashville sky. The air ambulance program is relocating its helipad to the top of VUH.

VUMC's most famous birds to get new nest atop VUH

The familiar sight of LifeFlight helicopters hovering just above the Emergency Department will soon be changing. The landing pad for the life saving air ambulance program is being moved to the roof of the hospital building.

Relocation of the helipad is necessary for the program to remain in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules — and in service to Middle Tennesseans — during the upcoming construction of the new Children’s Hospital building.

“As soon as the first crane goes up to build the new Children’s Hospital our flight path to the current helipad is made nonoperable," said Dr. John A. Morris Jr., professor of Surgery and director of the Division of Trauma. "This isn’t a Vanderbilt problem, it’s an FAA problem. Without moving the helipad we would be faced with closing the program, and we consider keeping the program open essential to the community.”

Morris said that since adding a second helicopter two years ago, LifeFlight has increased its number of flights 50 percent — from about 1,000 a year to more than 1,500.

“That number highlights the critical nature of services that LifeFlight is providing to the people in the 65,000-square-mile area that we serve,” he said.

According to Fred DeWeese, vice president for VUMC's Facilities Planning and Development, construction of the new $5 million rooftop facility is scheduled to begin in November and should be finished by next July or August.

Morris said the new helipad location will have several advantages.

“First, it will be a safer location because we don’t anticipate building any other buildings taller than the hospital. This will allow us to have a 360-degree flight path approach to the helipad,” Morris said.

Currently, depending on wind conditions and direction, LifeFlight pilots must approach the helipad very cautiously and often must make a long approach to get into position to land. Morris likens it to “landing in the bottom of a bowl” due to all of the buildings added since the helipad was put in its current location to allow for all of the construction south of the hospital in the late 1980s. The first helipad was located off a parking lot where MRB I is now.

“This new location will bring us an additional safety margin and it may allow us to bring, in a safe fashion, aircraft that can’t currently land at Vanderbilt,” he said.

Presently, only twin-engine equipped aircraft are allowed to land at the current helipad due to safety and insurance reasons.

“It takes a tremendous amount of reserve power to safely land an aircraft here now, and that mandates a twin-engine aircraft,” Morris said. “There are other aircraft that operate in our rural catchment area that are single engine aircraft. We will have to evaluate whether these aircraft will be able to safely land at our new helipad, whereas we know they can’t land here now.”

In recent years there have been several mass casualty instances where having the ability to land a larger, or single engine aircraft, would have greatly benefited patient care.

Morris said another major advantage will be the location of the crew quarters — adjacent to the helipad, which should decrease response times on average of about seven minutes.

Currently, LifeFlight pilots and flight nurses are quartered in the Oxford House, across the street from the hospital.

“We are going to be able to eliminate much of the time it takes the crew to assemble for a flight. We hope to decrease our response time to about one minute with the new location. And that means improved service to all of the people who live in Middle Tennessee," Morris said.

According to DeWeese, construction of the new helipad will be a test of engineering skill.

“Any time you build onto the top of an existing facility it presents a challenge,” he said. “We’ve had representatives from Earl Swensson Associates and Centex Rogers involved in the planning for several months, in association with members of our staff.”

DeWeese said the new helipad will be supported by extending four of the structural support columns from the top of the hospital building to hold up two large steel trusses for the base. The pads for the new helipad will be constructed largely of prefabricated aluminum. The new flight crew quarters will be located below the pad.

Due to the new helipad's location there will be additional safety measures put in place. For fire safety, a full foam suppression system has already been incorporated into the facility’s design.

“In the event of a disaster this system would come on and flood the entire area with foam for about ten minutes,” DeWeese said.