Below are frequently asked questions regarding helicopters and the helipad at St. Joseph's.
Do all hospitals have helipads? If so, why?
No. Hospitals that do not have a trauma center or an acute level of patient care are not required to have a helipad for the transport of patients.
Where do the air ambulances pick up the patients they bring to St. Joseph's?
Patients are picked up from other hospitals, accident sites, rural areas or designated locations for transfer from a ground ambulance to an air ambulance. Air ambulances transport to St. Joseph's Hospital those patients that require the highest level of care. St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, is a nationally recognized center for quality patient care, medical education and research. It houses the internationally renowned Barrow Neurological Institute® which provides neurology and neurosurgery services for individuals with brain and spine diseases, disorders and injuries.
St. Joseph's Hospital is a Level 1 Trauma Center (verified by the American College of Surgeons). The hospital's helipad is used primarily to receive trauma patients or those needing immediate and highly specialized care, particularly accident victims with head and/or spine injuries and children injured in falls, car accidents, bicycle accidents or swimming pools.
Why can’t a regular ambulance transport patients?
An air ambulance is used when every minute counts to save a life: a critically ill patient needing immediate surgery or highly specialized care; a child drowning; an accident victim with life threatening injuries; a premature newborn; etc. A regular ambulance is staffed with an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) who is limited in their scope of care. An air ambulance is staffed with a trauma nurse who is licensed to administer medications and give a much higher level of care.
Do hospitals contract with certain air ambulance companies?
Some do, but not at St. Joseph's. All air ambulance companies are privately owned and are compensated the same as other health care providers: Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance, etc. Air ambulances are contacted to provide air transport from an accident scene by the Phoenix Fire Department Emergency Medical Service (EMS) or the County Sheriff's office. The EMS departments rotate between the various air ambulance companies in the Phoenix Metro Area. In the case of a hospital to hospital transfer, the air ambulance companies are contacted by the Emergency Room or Intensive Care Unit staff of the hospital that is transferring the patient.
Does the City of Phoenix regulate the air space?
No. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates all air space. The City of Phoenix, therefore, does not have any laws or ordinances regulating air space. The FAA has, however, given the Air Traffic Control Tower at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport control over communicating and tracking all planes and helicopters for safety reasons. The Phoenix Metro area is deemed to be "Class B" air space that is strictly controlled by the Air Traffic Control Tower. The tower's communication with helicopters is only for the purpose of keeping them clear of other air traffic.
Who regulates the air ambulances?
The FAA regulates the operability of the air ambulances, the qualifications and responsibilities of the pilots and non-medical equipment.
The AZ Department of Health Services regulates all medical aspects of an air ambulance including medical personnel licensing, equipment, level of care, medications and inspections.
There are no laws or regulations regarding the specific flight patterns of air ambulances because they are non-scheduled, fly in various directions transporting patients to and from hospitals and must vary their path to adjust for other air traffic, tall buildings and weather conditions. They generally fly certain corridors over major arterial streets and freeways until they get in the proximity of the hospital where they are landing and taking off .
What are the laws/regulations regarding helicopters?
The FAA has a Code of Federal Regulations (CFR); Part 135 regulates all commercial on-demand, non-scheduled air flights, including helicopters. The regulations for all helicopters and their pilots pertain to safety and communications. The FAA does not have regulations for specific flight paths.
The Phoenix Sky Harbor Air Traffic Control Tower has been given the responsibility by the FAA to communicate with and track all helicopters for safety reasons. The Air Traffic Control Tower does have an agreement (not a regulation) with all helicopter companies regarding general routes they are to fly to avoid commercial airline patterns.
Can the City of Phoenix or the hospital fine helicopters for flying over neighborhoods?
No. The City of Phoenix has no legal jurisdiction over air space and, therefore, no laws regulating helicopter flight patterns. St. Joseph's does not have authority over the air ambulances or their flight patterns. The hospital only provides a place for them to land.
How high are helicopters suppose to fly?
Phoenix Sky Harbor's Air Traffic Control Tower has a letter of agreement with all helicopter companies that establishes different altitudes for different uses: 1,600 – 2,000 feet is reserved for the AZ Department of Public Safety (DPS), the County Sheriff's Office and City of Phoenix Police Department helicopters. Air ambulances, media and commercial helicopters are to fly between 2,000 and 2,500 feet unless landing or taking off.
Why do helicopters have to take off into the wind?
Similar to fixed wing aircraft, helicopters need proper airflow over the rotor system on both take off and landing. Effective utilization of the wind is imperative for safety reasons and enables a more efficient lift off and landing, particularly in the heat.
Why do the helicopters sometimes hover or circle over the helipad?
FAA regulations mandate that all helicopters establish communication with the Phoenix Sky Harbor Control Tower once they have lifted off the helipad. A small circular orbit, similar to hovering, is sometimes necessary until communication has been officially established. Hovering or circling is also necessary if all three spaces on the helipad are occupied, as can be the case when there are multiple accident victims.
Do different helicopters fly at different altitudes?
The FAA and Phoenix Sky Harbor Air Traffic Control Tower recognize that the AZ DPS, the County Sheriff's Office and City of Phoenix Police Department helicopters need to be closer to the ground than commercial helicopters.
How can we tell if the helicopters are violating the City's Noise Ordinance?
The City of Phoenix Zoning Ordinance states that a helicopter sitting on a helipad shall emit a maximum noise level of no greater than 90 decibels (dBA) at the boundaries of the lot containing the nearest residential use. The professional noise study conducted by VSA n Associates in July of 2003 measured a 60 dBA ambient noise level without an operating helicopter, and a 67 dBA with an operating helicopter, at the nearest residence to the North, for the helipad at St. Joseph’s.
Another professional noise study was conducted by ACS Acoustical Consulting Services over nine different days between January 17, 2007 and February 17, 2007. ACS measured a 65 dBA (landing) and 67 dBA (taking off) noise impact of an air ambulance at the nearest residence to the North of the hospital. ACS measured a 49 dBA (landing) and 65 dBA (taking off) noise impact of an air ambulance at the nearest residence to the West of the hospital. The noise generated by air ambulances using the hospital's helipad was deemed to be well within the City's noise level limit of 90 dBA. Of note, 30 of the 34 helicopters observed were media, police, etc., NOT air ambulances .
Who controls the flight patterns of air ambulances and other helicopters?
The FAA established the pilot as the one with ultimate responsibility for safe operation of the helicopter based on safety specific circumstances. Only the pilot can judge and adjust the flight path for safety threats like heat, other aircraft, obstacles, wind, etc.
Why don't the air ambulances always follow the designated flight path?
Air Ambulances vary their route to a hospital depending on the direction they are coming from, other air traffic, obstacles (tall buildings) and wind patterns.
What has St. Joseph's Hospital done to communicate the new flight path to the air ambulance companies?
The current flight pattern has been in effect for the past eight years. All Helicopter companies were notified of the current flight pattern when it was instituted in 2005. Since then, St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, sends a reminder letter twice a year to all companies. The letter explains the current flight path, shows approaches and departures from the East, and expresses understanding for the occasional exception for safety or weather reasons.
Signage has been placed on the helipad reminding the pilots of the flight path and the appreciation it fosters from our surrounding neighbors.
The special neighborhood website that St. Joseph's Hospital set up for neighbor complaints is still in effect for local residents to utilize.
Security personnel continues to monitor the approach and departure via roof top cameras that allow them to monitor the helipad and logs all air ambulance traffic.
How many air ambulance landings are there at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center every year?
St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center had 1,494 air ambulance landings in 2012.