Debate over heliport safety at new children's hospital

June 23, 2011 (CHICAGO)

Some residents are opposed to the heliport because they believe it is too dangerous.

The group opposing the helipad on the roof of the new Children's Memorial Hospital insists its objections have more to do with safety than the noise that comes with ferrying in the sickest patients by helicopter.

The move is just three miles, but the transformation is dramatic. One year from now, Children's Memorial Hospital will leave its cramped quarters in Lincoln Park for a new $915 million home nestled into the Northwestern Memorial Hospital campus downtown.

"The families get to stay with their child. One patient per room, whereas right now, we have many babies in one room," said Children's Memorial Hospital's Maureen Mahoney.

In years past, the hospital says it has turned away as many 200 children in need of treatment due to lack of space. The new building increases capacity 30 percent. There are spacious operating rooms and connections to care next door at Northwestern.

All of it is meant to put patients and their parents at ease.

"What we wanted to do is to make sure that when they are here, that they're in an environment where they feel safe, secure. It allows for the siblings to come," Mahoney said.

No one is debating the need for a new hospital for kids, but how some get there in emergencies is drawing concern from some in the Streeterville neighborhood. They are worried the hospital's proposed helipad, 23 stories up, will be a danger.

Lake winds. A concrete canyon of skyscrapers. Combined, critics say, it could create the potential for a crash, and they're making their case at two days' worth of public hearings.

"There are a tremendous number of factors that affect whether a heliport nestled in a forest of skyscrapers can be operated safely, and all of those factors need to be taken into consideration," said Patty Frost of the Streeterville Organization of Active Residents. "The report that was recently produced focuses on one narrow slice of the puzzle."

A state study recently concluded the helipad would be safe, providing choppers not try to land when sustained winds are above 23 mph.

The study does concede some conditions would result in a "relatively intense pilot workload" and could be "near the limits of acceptable operation."

"What the IDOT study essentially does is confirms our experts' findings and our hospital's conclusion that a heliport can be safely operated on this hospital," said Mary Kate Daly, Children's Memorial Hospital spokesperson.

The state still needs to sign off on the safety of the downtown helipad.

When the hearing resumes Friday, the Streeterville residents' organization will argue the IDOT study is flawed and needs to be redone.

The two sides have a little less than a year to work this out. The new hospital opens early next June.

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