Construction of long-awaited helipad to begin at Fort McMurray hospital

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Judge urges AHS to move quickly to build helipad at Fort McMurray hospital

The construction of a long-awaited helipad at the Fort McMurray hospital will begin later this year, Alberta Health Services says.

The helipad has been a long time coming for the oilsands capital, where residents have complained in the past that Alberta's energy hub lacks critical health infrastructure.

Fort McMurray's Northern Lights Regional Health Centre is the closest major hospital to several communities and industrial sites in northern Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

Currently, an air ambulance lands at the Fort McMurray International Airport and then patients are transported by road for a 21-minute trip to Fort McMurray's hospital.

In a news release issued Tuesday evening, AHS spokesperson Jason Morton said construction of the helipad at the rear of the hospital will begin some time in 2017.

The helipad will offer direct access to the hospital's emergency department, operating room and intensive care unit.

Morton said the project is still pending approval from Transport Canada and the Wood Buffalo municipality.

"We are excited to see this project move forward," AHS North Zone medical director Dr. Kevin Worry said in the emailed statement. "The new location is ideal as it offers a direct route to key patient care areas, like our emergency department, and there is a clear flight path to and from the hospital."

Former premier Jim Prentice announced in October 2014 his government would invest $5.5 million for a helipad at the hospital.

Construction on the helipad was supposed to begin in spring 2015 but the province said ongoing design issues would delay the expected completion until late 2016.

Then, nearly four months later, AHS announced the helipad wouldn't be constructed until 2017 because it wanted to co-ordinate heliport construction with planned renovations to the hospital.

AHS intended to construct a rooftop landing site but is now opting for a ground-level location, saying that it will result in lower costs, quicker construction and less inconvenience to patients.

Emergency response lags

Despite the announcement, Paul Spring, president of Fort McMurray's Local Helicopter Emergency Response Organization, or Local HERO, said he's heard unfulfilled promises about construction of a landing site for his air ambulances before.

"We heard the pad was going to start a couple years ago and it never did," said Spring, manager of the region's air ambulance service.

"We still have our paramedics ask,'Is there any way you can land downtown or get us closer to the hospital with this patient? Because we are worried that this patient is not going to make it.'"

Transport Canada regulations prevent Local HERO helicopters from landing anywhere other than the airport. 

AHS said Stantec consultants have been meeting with hospital staff and stakeholders to explore the best options for building the heliport.

Transport Canada has reviewed the proposed location and has no concerns at this time, according to the AHS release.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook, Twitter or contact him via email.