Experts say the majority of the country’s heliports — most of which are run by hospitals — are beset by a range of safety issues. But the latest edition of NFPA 418, Heliports, can help change all that.
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2012
By Jen Boyer
On May 29, 2008, an emergency medical services (EMS) helicopter crashed on a rooftop hospital heliport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and caught fire. The occupants of the aircraft — the pilot and a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) examiner — both escaped, but the burning wreckage blocked the only legitimate exits from the roof, which included an elevator and stair tower. The survivors were forced to hide from the heat and flames by climbing down onto an air handling duct just below the rooftop level and remained there until help arrived. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that the aircraft’s tail rotor struck a radio antenna located on the roof next to the landing pad as it attempted to depart, resulting in a crash and fire.
HELIPORT INFORMATION AND RESOURCES
A scorched wall — and an array of potentially dangerous obstacles — atop a hospital roof in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after a helicopter crash and fire in 2008.
NFPA 418, Heliports
Document information and more is available at nfpa.org/418.
FAA Heliport Design Advisory Circular
This document contains the FAA’s guidelines for safe heliports.
FAA Inspector Training Evaluation Course
A course designed to educate fire inspectors, city planners, and state inspectors on the FAA Heliport Design guidelines and how to measure compliance.
National EMS Pilot Association
The National EMS Pilot Association offers information on safe operations of EMS aircraft and aeromedical (airplane and helicopter) landing facilities and includes a survey of more than 1,100 helicopter pilots across the country on heliport safety issues.
For years, proponents of safer heliports have lobbied for stronger regulations designed to ensure heliport safety, and the 2011 edition of NFPA 418: Standard for Heliports, gives them an important new tool for proactive regulatory authority. "The majority of heliports have some mild to extreme safety issues," says Ray Syms, chair of the NFPA 418 Technical Committee and president of Raymond A. Syms & Associates, a New Jersey–based heliport consulting firm. Syms bases his estimate on more than 25 years of experience surveying roughly 1,000 heliports across the country. In the case of the Grand Rapids crash, Syms points to the locations of the antennas and the rooftop exit as typical of the problems afflicting many heliports, problems now addressed in NFPA 418.
According to data com-piled by the NTSB and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 172 reported heliport and heliport-related accidents occurred in the U.S. from January 1965 to May 2010; 103 of those incidents involved striking obstacles on or near the heliport. But according to Rex Alexander, an EMS pilot, president of the National EMS Pilot Association (NEMSPA), and member of the NFPA 418 Technical Committee, the majority of heliport incidents aren’t reported, and there is no one-stop database that catalogs problems at heliports or incidents that result in injury or death. "There isn’t even a database that provides pilots with information about the heliports themselves, like landing pad location and flight paths," Alexander says. "This is part of the problem — there’s just no oversight on heliports, period. They get looked at the day they’re finished, and that’s it."
It’s this general absence of regulatory authority that results in many problematic heliports, Alexander says. Neither the FAA nor most state departments of transportation have authority over heliports. Syms says that, while hospital heliports are typically no more or less safe than any other kind of heliport, the sheer number of hospital heliports — 60 to 70 percent of the country’s estimated 6,000 heliports are for health care use, Syms says — makes them a primary focus of heliport safety issues.
Syms says hospital heliports are often developed by hospital administrators, doctors, and architects who generally have little or no experience with helicopters or heliports. "I’ve seen architects design a heliport based off their incorrect interpretation of the FAA’s Heliport Design Advisory Circular," Syms says. "They’re focused on the structural and pad details and little more. That’s a good start, but without input from people who will actually utilize the site, such as the pilots, important information — including proper site selection, performance abilities of the aircraft, what the prevailing winds are around the site, obstacles, and more — is just not considered."
As a step toward remedying this, Alexander oversaw a just-completed NEMSPA survey of more than 1,100 helicopter pilots, many of them EMS pilots, on heliport infrastructure and safety issues, information that was shared with the FAA. Overwhelmingly, Alexander says, respondents identified the lack of oversight and the absence of information resources for pilots as among the industry’s key problems.
To address those problems, NFPA 418 Technical Committee members brought their concerns to the attention of the full committee following the Grand Rapids accident and began discussing the possibility of significantly revising the standard. Central to the discussion was the FAA’s Heliport Design Advisory Circular, a detailed informational document outlining heliport design and safety guidelines. The problem with the document was that it was regulatory only for the handful of heliports developed using public funds.
For all other heliports, the FAA had no authority to require adherence to the advisory circular’s guidelines or even require architects and other heliport developers to use the document when developing landing sites.
As a result, many heliports across the country, including hospital heliports, did not meet the basic recommended FAA safety standards. "Disregard of the FAA advisory circular’s recommendations puts lives at risk — those in the aircraft, those on or around the heliport, and even the first responders," Syms says. Alexander’s survey found that only about half of the pilots had read the document.
But those FAA guidelines addressed the big issues surrounding heliport safety, and the committee discussed incorporating them into a revised NFPA 418 that would give the FAA material greater opportunity for regulatory adoption. The final version of the 2011 edition of NFPA 418 in fact does refer to the FAA guidelines, and the standard now requires all components of new and upgraded heliports to meet FAA heliport design criteria in municipalities that adopt the standard. These include landing pad markings, obstacle-free landing areas, obstacle-free approach and departure paths, heliport lighting, normal and emergency response procedures, fire safety protection, and more. The standard also requires that a fire marshal approve all heliport design drawings.
"Requiring fire marshals to be involved from the beginning and to inspect the facilities prior to their approval allows them to become much more familiar with the heliports in their areas," Syms says. "It also helps them plan for the eventuality of accessing a heliport in an emergency."
Syms says the adoption by reference of NFPA 418 into other codes that apply to new construction, such as the 2012 edition of NFPA 1, Fire Code®, provides additional opportunities for the enforcement of heliport safety around the country. The more local fire code officials who have regulatory authority over heliports, he says, the better.
Alexander says the new edition of NFPA 418 will make it easier for heliport operators to create and maintain facilities that are safer than ever before. He has spent years educating hospital administrators on heliport risk and liability issues and is responsible for closing a number of hospital heliports due to safety issues. But he’s also worked closely with the operators of those heliports to improve the facilities, and all have successfully reopened.
Alexander says the clarity and standardization found in the new edition of NFPA 418, combined with a general willingness of operators to address safety problems, are both reasons for optimism.
"I’d say 80 percent of the heliports in the country could be better — it’s not that they’re necessarily unsafe, but rather that they’re riskier than they need to be," he says. "In my experience, if you frame the discussion in terms of both risk and liability, people are willing to work with you. You’ll always have that small number that will resist, but most of the time people are willing to listen, and they’re willing to improve their sites."
Jen Boyer is a journalist in Seattle, Washington.