Friday, December 2, 2011

Air Methods, You Just Don't DO That.

The Arabic word "haraam" is such an expressive word because it means two things; that something is forbidden and an activity is shocking. Haraam is the word that comes to my mind with the latest development in the plan to operate a helipad atop Children's Memorial Hospital located on Chicago's Lake Michigan.

In the world of aviation, it is a article of faith that all employees must feel free to speak up about safety. So important is the concept that around the world, workers are encouraged to submit confidential or anonymous safety reports - even about their own mistakes - because with safety, you can't fix what you don't know is broken.

Here is where the behemoth air ambulance company, Air Methods apparently took the fork in the road that separates those that wanna be safe from those that don't, according to a news report on ABC Channel 7 in Chicago. In the story, Ravi Baichwal, reports that an unsigned "whistle-blower" letter was sent to the neighborhood group opposing the helipad claiming that pilots who fly into the present ground-based landing zone for Children's Hospital in nearby Lincoln Park, have complained about operating risks at the high rise. But their concerns have been ignored. Further, they were prohibited from "discussing the subject with anyone" the letter says.


I have little doubt that back in the day when the hospital first conceived of the plan to bring helicopters onto their rooftop, 411 feet in the air, in a canyon of high rise buildings commercial and residential, that it had no idea it would be fighting with the neighbors for years. But fight they have as nearly every claim the hospital made about the benefits was challenged by nearby residents concerned about the risks.

The case got quite complicated. Scientists, engineers and meteorologists were hired by both sides.  (Full disclosure: in 2008, the neighborhood group paid for a data search on the Comprehensive Medical Aviation Safety Database in which I have an interest.)

In a battle pitching expert against expert on subjects as dense as atmospheric boundary layers, vorticity isosurfaces and approach path trajectories, it's hard for the general public to know who is right and who is wrong.

But when the very airmen who will be required to fly say the plan is bad, because there is "nowhere to safely land in an emergency" or that "their helicopter does not have the power to successfully fly away on one engine because of the nearness of surrounding buildings" that makes it pretty clear.

So you can see why these people might be under pressure to keep quiet though to their credit, they have not. Instead, the unsigned letter was sent to Streeterville Organization of Active Residents, the neighbors opposing the helipad, a modern-day David fighting two Goliaths; a prestigious hospital and Air Methods Corporation, the nation's largest provider of air medical transport. The letter arrived just as the slingshot-armed-upstart was nearing the bottom of the bag of rocks.

And now, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation has opened an investigation into whether either the Colorado-based and publicly traded Air Methods or the hospital tried to shush those who had something to say about safety.

Of all the things helicopter ambulance companies and their enablers have done in the past decade to turn ostensibly life-saving medical transport into the for-profit multi-billion dollar, over-used and under-regulated sham that it is today, the decision to fight so hard for this location in Chicago seems uniquely arrogant and reckless. But if the inspector general finds that workers were indeed told to shut up about safety that's even worse, that would be haraam.
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