San Francisco Board of Supervisors to Vote on Helipad Proposal on Tuesday

By Lisa Cisneros

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote on Tuesday on UCSF’s proposal to operate a rooftop helipad for helicopters to transport critically ill children, infants and expectant mothers from outlying community hospitals to UCSF Children’s Hospital at Mission Bay. 

The San Francisco Supervisor’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee on July 20 approved a resolution for the proposed helipad and adopted environmental findings under the California Environmental Quality Act, including a mitigation, monitoring and reporting program. To watch a video of the public hearing, visit here.

UCSF Medical Center officials and physicians believe that rapid access to UCSF’s specialized health care via air helicopter transport will improve and save many lives. A video explaining the need for a helipad and more facts about it are available on the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay website.

San Francisco Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, chair of the committee who introduced the resolution for the helipad on June 9, thanked UCSF and the community for their participation in the planning process over the past year and a half. Maxwell said that UCSF has “done a great job” in being responsive to community concerns and that, “overall, there is community support” for the helipad.

The proposed helipad would be located on the northern most portion of the UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay, a 289-bed, integrated hospital complex to open in 2014 to serve children, women and cancer patients near UCSF’s existing, 57-acre biomedical campus.

Critical Care

Roxanne Fernandes, executive director of the UCSF Children’s Hospital, said the helipad is needed because every day about 150 infants, children and women come to UCSF from all over the state of California to be treated for life-threatening conditions, such as cancer, cardiac defects and severe prematurity.

About half of these patients are on the public health insurance program Medi-Cal, which is not unique to San Francisco or Northern California, she said. And since California chooses to rank Medi-Cal as the lowest reimbursement for children’s services in the entire country, many community hospitals choose not to provide pediatric services, Fernandes explained. Instead, they often refer young patients to UCSF Children’s Hospital.

“The children’s hospital at UCSF sees children from 50 counties in the state of California, which makes this helipad extremely important to us,” Fernandes said.

She noted that this helipad will not be used for trauma care and that all helicopter transports would be decided by physician-to-physician referrals, including neonatologist and perinatologist Yao Sun, MD, PhD.

Sun, director of Clinical Programs for the William H. Tooley Intensive Care Nursery at UCSF Children’s Hospital, said the helipad is needed so that UCSF can provide services for life-threatening medical and surgical conditions “where literally every minute and every hour counts.”

Using a helicopter would reduce the time and number of transfers it takes for ground transport by ambulances or airplanes, which currently land at San Francisco International Airport. Patients who land at SFO then must be transferred to ambulances which sometimes face delays due to traffic.

Sun gave a couple of examples to highlight the urgent need for the helipad. A few months ago, he noted, a baby who was born with intestines outside the abdomen required emergency surgery. For babies born with this condition to survive, it is imperative that they get to a center where pediatric surgeons and neonatologists can operate as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Sun explained, in this case, the transportation to UCSF took longer than expected and the patient died.

Premature babies, who are born at 25 or 26 weeks, also need to get care as soon as possible since their health and their eventual outcome depends on how quickly they are treated.

Sun also pointed out that the helipad would benefit all children of San Francisco. “The way that we maintain our expertise and the reason why we have experts in these fields who want to come here to UCSF to provide these types of services is because we have a critical mass of both the patients as well as the resources we need to serve them,” he said. That’s what attracts people to UCSF and keeps them at UCSF. “That’s what attracted me to UCSF,” Sun said.

Community Involvement

Several members of the community, including those who serve on UCSF community advisory groups and work at UCSF, voiced their support of the helipad. Several commended UCSF for their community outreach in the process and response to feedback, describing it is a “model” for others to follow.

Corinne Woods, chair the Mission Bay Citizens Advisory Committee and chair the UCSF Community Advisory Group’s subcommittee on the hospital project, said she “strongly supports the project.” Even though there was initial opposition to the helipad due to noise and other concerns, “UCSF has done a tremendous job addressing community concerns,” she told the supervisors.

A couple members of the community urged the supervisors to hold off on voting for the helipad until more studies have been done on the impact and how it might be used in a regional emergency. Another person suggested that the helipad be moved elsewhere, such as the foot of 16th Street so that it could serve others hospitals, including San Francisco General Hospital, which has a trauma center.

UCSF did look at the possibility of locating the helipad at the foot of 16th Street, according to Kevin Beauchamp, director of physical planning at UCSF. But the idea was rejected for clinical care reasons since a patient would still have to be transferred from the helipad to an ambulance to UCSF, thereby slowing the time it takes for a patient to be treated.

UCSF representatives have worked extensively with the community on the proposed UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay project and specifically responded to questions and concerns about the helipad. Based on feedback from the community, UCSF is relocating the proposed helipad to the northernmost portion of the medical center complex to maximize distance from residences, as well as developing flight paths that are over San Francisco Bay and away from residential neighborhoods. 

Additionally, UCSF conducted a rigorous community planning process to prepare for the operation of the helipad, and recently worked with nearby neighbors to produce the Residential Sound Reduction Program (RSRP) for helipad operations. 

Through the RSRP, UCSF has committed to fund sound reduction improvements for residents that may be seriously impacted by helicopter noise. The program will be activated once the hospital is up and running in the 2014-2015 timeframe.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors must approve the helipad before the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) Aeronautics Division will consider approval of UCSF’s application for a permit to construct and operate the helipad.

UCSF also is required to obtain an FAA airspace determination to ensure that the proposed flight paths are clear of obstructions and to meet dimensional requirements, prior to requesting approval by Caltrans.

Faculty, staff and students who live in San Francisco can help ensure that the helipad is approved by calling their supervisor. More information is available on the UCSF Advocates website.

Related Links:

UCSF Medical Center at Mission Bay

Supervisor Introduces Helipad Resolution for Rapid Transport of Critically Ill
UCSF Today, June 9, 2009