Helicopter company to help transport critical patients during viaduct shutdown

With the viaduct closure, Airlift Northwest will be helping transport patients from available streets to hospitals.

SEATTLE — The grim prospect of getting critically ill patients to the hospital during gridlock has first responders looking to the sky for a solution.

For the first time in its 37 years, Airlift Northwest will be hovering over the Emerald City to help out while the viaduct is shut down.

When Airlift Northwest takes off from the region's only Level One trauma center, it is always headed to points outside the city of Seattle. But with the viaduct just hours away from being a part of the Emerald City's history, these helicopters will soon be staying closer to home.

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"We can go up and over all of the traffic," said Sean Bacon, the communication supervisor, in Airlift Northwest's dispatch center at Boeing Field. "Pretty much any place in Seattle to Harborview in a helicopter is just a matter of two to three minutes.”

Yet, they don't normally do that, he said.

"There isn't a need for us in the city itself just because the hospitals are so close," Bacon said. "Generally we respond out to more rural areas and bring them into Harborview."

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And after 37 years of doing that lifesaving work elsewhere, he says, "this will be the first time that we're actually used in the city."

"One of the things the fire department has been very active in for 12 years is regional aviation," said Deputy Fire Chief Ron Madragon.

Madragon is Seattle Fire's point man for getting the city's first responders around the viaduct closure.

"We identified our primary challenge would be our response capability on surface streets," said Madragon. "Ninety-thousand cars are being pushed onto not only surface streets but (also) arterials that will extend as far north as Northgate, as far east as Bellevue and as far south as Southcenter."

Madragon calls what they are doing is "going outside the box" so they can meet the challenges first responders expect to face.

"Even placing our bicycle medic program in service in the downtown core," he said.

To allow easier access to fire engines, Seattle Department of Transportation has restricted parking on Yesler Way, James, Spring, Union, Virginia, Lenora and Wall streets, seven streets in all.

And fire engines will now use 3rd Avenue along with Metro buses to get through the downtown corridor.

In addition, the Fire Department has designated seven landing zones around the city where Airlift Northwest's helicopters can land.

But Bacon says they are not restricted to that.

"We can land anywhere that's 100 feet by 100 feet," he said.

But not on 5th Avenue? he was asked.

"As long as there's 100 feet by 100 feet on 5th Avenue," he said, smiling, "we could do it."

Madragon says their standard goal is a response time of eight minutes at least 70% of the time.

But he says with the viaduct gone, it will be a challenge meeting that goal.

They hope this creative use of resources will help them achieve that and keep this community safe.