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New ‘heliport’ site begins operations at Portage la Prairie

This is the first site approved by Transport Canada outside Winnipeg. Ste. Anne’s Hospital is also awaiting approval of a newly constructed site

Every minute matters when a life is in danger, and with a new ‘heliport’ becoming operational this month at the Portage la Prairie District General Hospital, critical time will be saved during emergency response efforts.

Why it matters: Cutting down transport times of critically ill or injured patients can save a life.

The hospital’s newly constructed landing pad enables crews flying Shock Trauma Air Rescue Society (STARS) helicopters to land right next to the hospital, speeding up transport of patients. Previously, they were landing at the nearby airport in Portage.

This is the first constructed heliport site outside the city of Winnipeg to receive Transport Canada certification.

The only other site currently operational is the hospital-based rooftop heliport at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre.

A STARS crew flew a test flight to the newly constructed Portage site January 21. Transport Canada issued its final approvals to begin operations there the following day.

This is an important development, because heliport infrastructures are literally lifesavers, said STARS Manitoba operations director Grant Therrien.

Helipads significantly cut down time otherwise spent ferrying patients when air ambulances can only land at nearby airports, he said.

“It’s all about saving minutes and saving lives,” he said.

“Depending on the community, on average you can save 20 to 30 minutes of time. With the critically ill or injured, when you can cut that amount of time it can be life-saving.”

STARS flight nurse Karen Oke works on a patient during the Manitoba base’s annual simulation competition. The event is part of the over 100 hours of training STARS nurses and paramedics must complete each year.
photo: STARS

Their design is a concrete pad, approximately nine metres wide, with a nearby windsock. Some are fenced with chain link. There are very specific rules and regulations all helicopter operators must follow to land on them due to their proximity to populated areas.

“I like to say it’s like door-to-door service,” Therrien said.

“We can pick up a patient at Portage la Prairie and deliver them right to the rooftop at Health Sciences Centre. You’re saving substantial time over similar methods to an airplane where you’re restricted to the airport.

“Right now there’s a number of communities where we do have to go and land at the airport,” he added.

Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre heliport began operations in late 2016. There is now one other site constructed at Ste. Anne’s Hospital with approval to begin operations pending.

The town of Carman and the RM of Dufferin have recently signalled an intent to construct a permanent heliport site at the Carman Hospital, too. STARS has been landing on a grassed area at Carman until now, but has been advised by Transport Canada it can no longer do so.

“There’s a few hospitals that are located right on the edge of town and we can safely get close to the hospital without a helipad,” he said. However, these sites are subject to yearly re-evaluations by Transport Canada and when cellphone towers are put up, or an area gets built up, these temporary sites can be pulled.

STAR-7 lifts off from Rosser following a mock accident exercise with the rural municipality’s volunteer fire department.
photo: STARS

Therrien said flight volumes and busiest destinations would need to be reviewed to determine where more of this type of infrastructure would have the greatest impact.

“We have regional hospitals that do a lot of volume; places like Portage la Prairie, Boundary Trails, Steinbach and Brandon,” he said.

“We do a lot of transfers out of those facilities.”

Bottom line is that STARS, as a stakeholder in all of this, greatly appreciates how communities are seeing the need and pursuing these projects, he said.

“We’ve seen this in Alberta, and now we’re starting to see it in Saskatchewan and Manitoba as well, where communities, after seeing the value of the STARS helicopter program, are coming together and wanting to build this type of infrastructure.

“When communities build these things it’s always a benefit to the patient, and that’s what we’re most concerned about.”

During the 2017-18 fiscal year STARS flew 720 missions in Manitoba from its base in Winnipeg including 35 out of Portage la Prairie.

STARS teams are especially valued by rural and farm residents who owe their lives to fast response of these air ambulance crews.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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