Union Memorial seeks helipad

But Baltimore hospital's neighbors worry about noise, safety

December 27, 2006|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore is asking the city to let it build a pad for helicopters to land on its roof, enabling the hospital to be more competitive in the care it can provide.

But residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the hospital, at University Parkway and Calvert Street, are worried about the noise and safety hazards the helicopters would bring. The hospital is near a mix of high-rise apartment buildings, condominiums and single-family homes where Charles Village intersects with Oakenshawe and Guilford.

The helicopters would primarily be used to transport patients in cardiac arrest to the hospital's Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Heart Institute and those with crushed or severed hands to its Curtis National Hand Center.

Hospital officials anticipate about two flights a week for heart cases and two to three a month for hand cases.

Brad Chambers, the hospital's chief operating officer, said the helicopters would decrease transit time to the hospital. "With severe hand injuries or significant cardiovascular issues, time can result in the loss of life or limb," he said.

But some leaders of the surrounding neighborhoods fear that helicopter takeoffs and landings could lead to more injuries, especially given that some of the surrounding apartment buildings are taller than Union Memorial.

"Where would the emergency landing be if they had to land somewhere else? In my backyard? I don't think so," said Odette Ramos, president of the Abell Improvement Association.

The city councilwoman representing the area, Mary Pat Clarke, has scheduled a community meeting for 7:30 p.m. Jan. 8 at University Baptist Church, 3501 N. Charles St. The goal of the meeting is to allow the neighborhoods to discuss their concerns with hospital officials.

"I've got to be in a room with people where we all hear their presentation and decide where we stand," Clarke said. She said there is community sentiment that Union Memorial has been a good neighbor: The hospital says it provides $30 million a year in care to city residents that is not reimbursed, half of that in Clarke's council district.

"Nevertheless," Clarke said, "the issue of a helicopter landing on the roof in the neighborhood is major in the eyes of the residents."

Dana Moore, president of the Charles Village Civic Association, said part of the problem has been that neighborhood leaders haven't had access to all the details about the project.

"There's increasing frustration," Moore said. "A sophisticated community -- like Charles Village and Guilford and the other areas that abut Union Memorial -- is not used to being unable to get information."

Chambers said all the relevant information, including a map of the proposed flight routes, has been provided to community associations.

For the project to move forward, Union Memorial will need approval from the city planning commission, though some residents want the matter to go before the City Council, where there would be greater opportunity for public input.

Chambers said the helipad would take about nine months to install if city approval is granted. A hearing before the planning commission is scheduled for February.

Since the late 1970s, Union Memorial has used a helipad on a water treatment plant at Lake Montebello. But since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, increased security measures have led to the closing of the access road to the helipad, rendering it unusable for Union Memorial, Chambers said.

University of Maryland Medical Center, Johns Hopkins Hospital, St. Joseph Medical Center and Sinai Hospital all have helipads.

"We're the fifth hospital and we're the only one without the helicopter service," Chambers said.

Some residents say they would like to see steps taken to allow Union Memorial to resume its use of the helipad at Lake Montebello; others suggest the parking lot of the former Eastern High School as a safe, nearby place to land helicopters.

To allay the neighborhood concerns, Union Memorial hired a sound and vibration engineer, who concluded that the helipad's noise impact on the community would be "extremely small." Chambers said that ambulances on the street are louder than helicopters would be overhead.

Chambers also said the hospital would abide by Federal Aviation Administration guidelines to determine the weather conditions in which helicopters would fly and protocols for emergency landings.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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