Georgetown University Hospital was omitted from a list of area hospitals with helicopter landing pads in Sunday's Metro section. Hospital officials said the Georgetown helipad is used primarily for transferring patients from other hospitals, rather than for accident victims. (Published 4/8/87)
The Federal Aviation Administration and the Secret Service have approved plans for a helicopter pad at George Washington University Hospital, but the project has encountered strong opposition from its Foggy Bottom neighbors as it awaits approval by the District government.
University officials say the helipad, to be built in a parking lot near the Foggy Bottom Metrorail station, is needed for police helicopters, carrying accident victims to the hospital's emergency room when streets are blocked by snow or gridlock. The neighbors say the helicopters are noisy and dangerous.
"Just look at all the apartment buildings directly to the west of where they want those helicopters to be taking off and landing," said Sue Schumacher, a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2A. "The danger to the residents of Foggy Bottom is unbelievable, as well as the noise. It's something that just shouldn't be in a residential neighborhood."
But Charles Diehl, university vice president and treasurer, rejoined, "The question has to come down to which is more important -- noise or saving somebody's life." He said any danger from the helicopters is minimal.
Diehl said university officials first thought that their hospital needed a helipad after the Air Florida crash at the 14th Street Bridge in January 1982. A helicopter took victims to the Washington Hospital Center, about two miles farther away. "We had major trauma center right here," Diehl said, "but they couldn't get here."
The helipad required special approval from the FAA and the Secret Service because its site, on I Street NW between 23rd Street and New Hampshire Avenue, is in the restricted airspace zone surrounding the White House and the Capitol.
Under the FAA permit, the helipad can be used only by police emergency helicopters, not by private helicopters, ferrying patients between hospitals, or by contract helicopter operators, such as the MedStar service at the Hospital Center, on Irving Street NW. Approach and departure routes are limited, and pilots must maintain contact with the National Airport control tower.
William Corbett, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said the agency approved the helipad because it would be restricted to emergency cases and operate under tight control. He said the agency would "do all we can to accommodate what the needs are."
Diehl said the helipad, which would cost about $50,000 to set up and would eliminate about 15 parking spaces, would be used less than once a week.
"It's really not going to cause very much noise in an area that's already close to the flight path to National Airport," Diehl said. "But in cases where it's needed, it is vital."
One 25th Street resident, who asked not to be identified by name, said, "If it's not going to be used very much, why are they asking for it? Then it's just because they want to be up to date, and who cares at all about the neighborhood?"
Four hospitals in the District -- D.C. General, Children's, Washington Hospital Center and Walter Reed -- have helicopter facilities. Eleven hospitals in the suburbs have helipads, according to a survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
D.C. zoning laws make no mention of helicopter sites, but requests to build them are handled by the D.C. Zoning Commission on a case-by-case basis, according to Joseph Bottner, the city's acting zoning administrator. Last week D.C. Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2) introduced a bill prohibiting them in residential zones, which include the parking lot site proposed by George Washington.
The landing pad may require approval by the D.C. State Health Planning and Development Agency if it were regarded as a new hospital service. But Diehl said he was sure the agency would not require that the university get a "certificate of need" for it.
"We already have an emergency room service that can handle severe trauma cases," said Diehl. The only difference is that you're bringing them in by helicopter rather than by ambulance. That's a rare instance. It is really an emergency emergency service."
Robert Dickman, GWU's assistant treasurer, said the helipad had to be at ground level rather than on the hospital roof because the roof did not have enough free space for a safe helicopter landing.
Schumacher said she was not persuaded that the university hospital needs a helipad.
"There are other hospitals these patients can be taken to," she said. "It's just too dangerous to have helicopters in a residential neighborhood . . . . And the noise. It is not going to be pleasant, you know."Special correspondent Kirsten Olsen contributed to this report.