SEATTLE — With Seattle’s permanent closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct only days away, pilots and staff with Airlift Northwest are ramping up for dispatches throughout the city.
The medical helicopter service that’s part of UW Medicine has been part of an ongoing discussion among hospitals and first responders to make sure patients aren’t stuck in the expected traffic congestion.
At a news conference Wednesday, Seattle Fire Department Deputy Chief Ron Mondragon said first-responders been creative coming up with ways to get where they need when traffic isn’t moving. Part of that, he said, will be using Airlift choppers.
“So, in a worst-case scenario we have this backup,” Mondragon said.
Inside Airlift Northwest’s Boeing Field offices, dispatchers are in the operations center 24-hours a day. They coordinate air travel for patients needing to get hospitals across Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. Airlift Northwest, on their website, say they service more than 3,800 patients annually.
During the upcoming traffic congestion, Airlift Northwest helicopters will be taking patients to Harborview Medical Center.
“We can land in West Seattle and be at Harborview in just a matter of minutes,” said Sean Bacon, communications supervisor for Airlift Northwest.
It’s rare for Airlift Northwest helicopters to land in Seattle. The Seattle Fire Department said that’s because the city has multiple hospitals and ambulance services.
But those ambulances are going to struggle to get through traffic, Mondragon said.
Airlift Northwest has a list of eight emergency heli-spots in Seattle, all within city parks and playfields. But, chopper crews have been known to land at schools, highways even on Interstate 5, Bacon said.
“The ambulance is going to be stuck in traffic and there’s only so many places the cars can go to get out of their way, where we can just land in an open field and be up and over traffic doing 130 miles per hour,” Bacon said.
In addition to medical choppers, a plan is in place to make sure people are taken to the hospital fastest to reach in traffic – not necessarily the closest to where they’re at. This could include hospitals out of Seattle or even King County, Mondragon said.
First-responders will also be relying on traffic lanes, only open to them, to navigate snarled downtown traffic. They’ll also be driving in the Third Avenue bus lanes.
First-responders will have an emergency-vehicle only lane on First through Sixth Avenues, and Yesler Way, James Street, Spring Street, Union Street, Lenora Street and Wall Street to get by, according to the Seattle police and fire departments.
“We have also established chutes for east to west streets, approximately eight of them between Denny Way and Yesler,” Mondragon said, adding this will allow “the fire department the ability to bypass congestion or stopped traffic.”
Seattle police Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak said traffic officers will be working overtime to make sure cars keep moving. He said part of the plan is offering tow trucks a police escort so collisions can be cleared quickly.
When asked about a stalled car on Highway 99 that clogged Wednesday’s commute, Hirjak said that’s what officers are trying to avoid when the viaduct closes.
Hirjak said officers will also be watching for motorists who illegally drive in bus lanes. He said there’s been plenty of planning and coordination to make sure things go smoothly.
But, he adds, “of course none of us really know what it’s going to be like next week.”