Nearly 100 of Cottage Hospital’s neighbors turned out for a special meeting Monday night, anxious and sometimes outright angry about the hospital’s newly opened helipad and the frequency of noisy air ambulances that visited it over the last two weeks. Their concern centered on what’s proven to be an inaccurate forecast made by hospital administrators when they petitioned the city for a building permit back in 2001: The site, they said, would be used approximately twice a week for emergency patient landings. Between February 3—when Cottage’s helipad officially opened for use—and February 14, there were 14 landings.
While Monday’s crowd bristled with complaints for most of the two-hour meeting—the “thump-thump-thump,” of overhead chopper blades, some said, made the suburban neighborhood feel like a “warzone,” waking up children and early-risers and driving down property values, and an Iraq war vet said the sound exacerbates his PTSD—Cottage CEO Ronald Werft seemed to assuage some of the worries by the end of the evening.
He and the hospital were similarly surprised at the landing pad’s instant popularity, he said, and are actively ironing out its operational kinks. He explained Cottage is committed to keeping open dialogue between the hospital and nearby residents to discuss the sensitive balance between saving patient lives and disrupting neighbors’ lives. And he nodded in mild agreement with a few speakers who suggested, when Werft said the hospital can’t and won’t limit landings right away, that complaints would be better lodged with City Hall or the Planning Department, which originally granted the helipad’s construction and use.
What wasn’t talked about is that Santa Barbara government agencies currently have no legal power over the number of emergency helicopter landings at Cottage Hospital. When the city originally granted helipad approval in 2001, explained assistant city planner Suzanne Riegel during a later interview, it triggered a state public utilities code that exempts the site from local government restrictions on life-saving helicopter transports. And when Cottage amended its plan in 2005—moving the helipad from one of the hospital’s older buildings to its now-completed, upgraded facilities—there was no need to include the number of predicted flights because 2001’s approval, in the eyes of the state, leaves that oversight up to Cottage, the private operator. Cathy Murillo, the only councilmember to attend the meeting, encouraged attendees to contact the Neighborhood Advisory Committee and show up for the council’s public comment period. No one from the planning department was present.
The hospital has promised that all of its helicopter landings occurred during life-or-death emergencies or that the time saved in transport made all the difference for treatment and recovery. Indeed, the majority of patients transported thus far have benefited from the cutting-edge stroke victim and child care programs Cottage developed in the last few years. Many have questioned, however, why the new offerings—unique to the entire Central Coast, between Los Angeles and San Jose—weren’t taken into account during the permitting process more than a decade ago, well before Cottage became so attractive from a specialized critical need standpoint.
A main impetus for Monday evening’s impromptu meeting was the number of flights last Tuesday night. Between approximately 8 p.m. and 1 a.m., five choppers transported patients to and from the hospital. The unpredictably high traffic’s commotion, however, was worsened by a communication breakdown with pilots. Two Los Angeles-based air ambulance companies, on their way to Santa Barbara to pick up two gravely ill children, didn’t tell Cottage they were inbound until they were literally right above the hospital. At the time a CALSTAR unit was on the landing pad unloading a stroke victim. This forced the L.A. choppers to circle the area for so long they headed for the airport to refuel.
That, said Werft, shouldn’t have happened, and won’t happen again. Cottage has strict landing protocols that the L.A. pilots didn’t follow. Incoming and outgoing helicopters are required to trace Highway 101 on their way to the hospital before cutting to Junipero Street. If the situation arises where more than one chopper arrives at the pad at the same time, the overflow is mandated to hover over the ocean or out near the airport, he explained.
In certain circumstances, they might land at the airport or on La Cumbre Junior High School’s field—the main touchdown point before the helipad was built—and transfer patients by highway. The option of landing patients at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital and then driving them to Santa Barbara is impractical, said Werft, as the S.B. campus houses the fully-integrated trauma units that make the location so fundamental to saving lives. Any landing at La Cumbre, the airport, or elsewhere close by adds at least 20-40 minutes of transport time.
Following Tuesday night’s snafu, all 18 air ambulance companies and agencies allowed to land at Cottage have been reminded of the procedures, said Director of Environmental Safety and Security Susannah Shaw, explaining their S.B. privileges can be restricted if they don’t follow the rules. Cottage also started stationing a staff member in the helipad’s watch tower during landings. This Monday night a rescue chopper coming from Simi Valley arrived on the right path, but left on the wrong course. The private company is now temporarily suspended from using Cottage’s landing pad.
The hospital plans to hold another neighborhood meeting sometime next month. The date and time will be announced soon.