Sewickley Landing Zones – A Turbulent Journey

QVMS Field

Quaker Valley Middle School Field, Sewickley Borough. There is a gate for vehicle access located at the north end of the field, which adds to its attractiveness as a landing area for medical helicopters. Credit – Google Maps


Valley Ambulance Authority landing zone, adjacent to the headquarters building on University Blvd. in Moon Township.                                          Photo taken February 2012.

Over the last few years I’ve been observing the manner and location at which medical helicopters land in the Sewickley area, specifically when transporting patients from Heritage Valley Hospital Sewickley (HVHS) to specialty care facilities in the Pittsburgh area and elsewhere.

Recent developments may have finally solidified the process by which these landings can occur in a safe and consistent manner. I say “finally” because the way in which that process was arrived at appears to have been fraught with unexpected turns and turbulence – much of it unnecessary.

A Brief Background

Two and a half years ago, I detailed the circumstances and challenges that resulted in multiple landing areas being utilized in what looked to me as a somewhat haphazard fashion. This was due in part to the reconstruction of Quaker Valley Middle School and its athletic field, which had previously served as the “regular” landing zone (LZ).

After this practical confusion about the location of an alternate LZ for the hospital, one was formally established at the Valley Ambulance Authority headquarters in Moon Township. Kevin Flannery, Sewickley Borough Manager, was cited as instrumental in getting the message out to all involved stakeholders – Police, Fire, EMS,  Hospital, and the area’s two helicopter services.

While the landing of medical helicopters in the Sewickley area is an infrequent occurrence, they are relatively easy to keep tabs on. The websites of both Cochran Hose Company and Moon Township VFC provide links to monthly incident activity.

By early 2013, the Middle School construction had been completed. However, the transition back to the Middle School LZ seemed to take much longer than anticipated.

In the course of tracking these landings during the first months of 2013, I noticed that the field at the Middle School was still not being used, even though there were no remaining signs of construction activity.

I attempted contact with several stakeholders by e-mail, including Cochran Hose Chief Jeff Neff, inquiring about what procedures were in place regarding landings at the Middle School. Chief Neff replied in an e-mail on April 13, 2013:

We are in discussions at the present time to reopen all of our landing zones on this side of the river.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

There was little or no landing activity in the months that followed. However, in September 2013 I noticed that the Valley Ambulance LZ was surrounded by construction supplies and equipment being staged for work on University Boulevard.

Valley LZ 09122013

Valley Ambulance Authority landing zone, taken Sept. 12, 2013.

I again made inquiries to those same stakeholders about the status of the landing zones on the Sewickley side of the river. Chief Neff replied with the following:

There are four landing zone sites available in our area. In order they are:

The middle school football field

The Osborne Elementary field

The YMCA field

The senior high school field

Most times the Quaker Valley Ambulance Authority chooses the site and contacts the necessary helicopter. We are then notified to set up the landing zone at the chosen site.

If Quaker Valley Ambulance Authority is in charge of the transport, especially if it is coming out of the Heritage Valley Sewickley Hospital, they determine the landing zone.

J.R. Henry, Executive Director of Valley Ambulance Authority, replied:

…the Hospital decides which landing zone to use and makes all pre-flight communications directly with the flight services.  When notified by that HVHS – Sewickley, has requested a helicopter, we will respond to the designated landing zone and coordinate the patient and / or crew transfer.

To our knowledge, VAA Headquarters is still the primary landing zone as construction is ongoing at the Quaker Valley Middle School.  This landing zone remains open 24/7 in spite of the construction company which is staging equipment in our lot.

Seeing the difference in perspective from these two officials, I contacted Tina Vojtko, Quaker Valley’s Communications Director, in an attempt to clarify this from the property owner’s standpoint. She replied:

The QVMS field is available for use by emergency medical helicopters. This has been clearly communicated to the appropriate emergency response officials.

Ms. Vojtko also stated that a district administrator would re-communicate this information to all stakeholders.

It’s All Fun and Games Until…

From last September through the first months of this year the Valley Ambulance LZ returned to its normal condition, and no discernible helicopter activity occurred that would assess the effectiveness of the school district’s communication.

That changed this past April.

According to the Borough Manager’s report to Sewickley Council’s Committee of the Whole on May 13:

Approximately 2½ weeks ago, a medical team at the hospital called for a helicopter. It landed at the YMCA without 9-1-1 notification to our Police, Cochran Hose or Valley Ambulance.

After hearing about this landing, in late April I contacted the same stakeholders as before in an attempt to gather information about the reasons that the YMCA field was used instead of the Middle School or Valley Ambulance.

Chief Neff replied:

Yes the helicopter landed at the YMCA field the other night. We were called out after the helicopter was already on the ground so I’m not sure who made the flight arrangements.  A lot of the Pilots are able to land without our assistance as they are familiar with each of the sites.

The YMCA field is a landing zone, it is one of three in our district that can be used. It is not the best, but is able to accommodate the helicopters.

Valley Ambulance Director Henry replied:

Please feel free to contact the hospital for any and all of that information.

Valley Ambulance Authority is not involved in the decision making process related to the use of any specific aeromedical service and /or particular landing zone selections for aeromedical transports to and from HVHS – Sewickley.

I did not have the time to follow-up further with Borough Manager Flannery or a representative of Heritage Valley Sewickley, but the circumstances surrounding this last event were apparently enough to get their attention. Quoting from Mr. Flannery’s report to Council in May:

Linda Homyk, VP of Emergency Services at HVHS, and I organized a meeting with all parties so that procedures could be reviewed…First and foremost, anyone that is flying into Sewickley Hospital for care will be required to go through Greater Pittsburgh Airport and transported by ambulance service to the hospital. Should a patient need to be transferred out of Sewickley by air, the procedure will be utilized.

Getting it Down on Paper

The procedure that Mr. Flannery’s report refers to is comprehensive and well-written.  I obtained a copy from Sewickley Borough via a Right-To-Know request.

The document is a Valley Ambulance “Policy and Guideline”, and is dated April 29.   Among its key points are:

  • It assigns the bulk of the responsibility for selection of the landing zone, and coordination of associated resources, with Valley Ambulance Authority’s dispatch center. This makes Valley directly involved in the decision-making process for landing zone selection and other logistics for transports from HVHS Sewickley.
  • It establishes Quaker Valley Middle School as the primary landing zone for transfers from HVHS, with the Valley Ambulance LZ as a backup. Additional contingencies are also in place should these two locations be unavailable for use.
  • It identifies responsibilities across disciplines that have up to this point been somewhat difficult to pin down, especially with regard to the hospital.

The procedure is available to view here, save for one edit that I felt it necessary to make – removing what appears to be the personal cell phone number of a school district administrator. Perhaps in future revisions this can be changed to notify the district office, especially if this official is unavailable or no longer working for the district. Focusing on positions and/or resources, instead of individuals, helps to keep procedures relevant and up to date through personnel and other changes.

In the three months since this new procedure went into effect, there has been at least one landing at the Middle School. I’m sure that everyone is looking forward to effective communication and clear expectations when these landings do occur.

STAT Landing 080814_1350 Dated

A STAT Medevac aircraft lands at Quaker Valley Middle School with Cochran Hose Company, Valley Ambulance, and Sewickley Police standing by – August 8, 2014.

Moving Forward…Positively

I am still wondering why it took so long – and until an unexpected landing took place – for these stakeholders to get together and make such an arrangement. Mr. Flannery, who is also Sewickley’s Emergency Management Coordinator, seems to have a knack for bringing people together when necessary. It’s just that it was necessary about a year and a half ago.

As much as I am drawn to speculate about relationships, especially in the context of health care systems and how they relate to public safety and government (or don’t), I will instead try to focus on something a little more positive.

Four weeks ago, two trains collided on the Norfolk Southern tracks adjacent to Chadwick Street in Sewickley. I got to listen in on the first minutes of this incident from several perspectives – the railroad crews, fire department, and EMS responders.

This incident was a high-profile, specialized response which drew resources as varied as airport foam trucks, environmental protection agents, and elected officials to the scene – not to mention the news media, on the ground and in the air.

An additional challenge was presented by the fact that a complex transportation modality – in this case, the railroad – was attempting to interface with local personnel, with whom their daily dealings are somewhat limited.

The same can be said for incidents involving aviation resources, including medical helicopters. The air medical industry continues to strive for improvement in safety practices. This includes increased emphasis on advance interaction with local responders.

The response of our local emergency services community to the train derailment was exemplary, despite the potential lack of familiarity with incidents of this type, which don’t occur very often.

Is it reasonable to expect the same kind of due diligence when preparing to respond to a helicopter landing, which may present a similar risk and attention profile should something go wrong?

I think it is.

I just hope that I don’t have to write about this again.

Have a great August.

Updated 8/8/2014 to add active LZ photo.

This entry was posted in Aviation, Government, Health, Local, Public Safety and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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