San Juan County is looking to build two new helicopter landing zones for AirCare, which is San Juan Regional Medical Center's helicopter service.
The county has identified two plots of land where helicopter landing pads can be built near Navajo Dam and Nageezi. Both communities are a long drive from an emergency and often rely on AirCare for serious medical emergencies, said Mike Berve, the AirCare and Trauma manager at the hospital.
County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter said the county is awaiting state approval to start construction because the landing zones are near highways.
The landing pads give ambulances and the helicopter a designated rendezvous point, Berve said.
Currently, AirCare pilots and on highways if responding to an emergency near Navajo chapters south of Bloomfield or near Navajo Dam and Navajo Lake.
The highways can be treacherous for helicopters.
AirCare has landed on N.M. 511 between Navajo Dam and Navajo Lake to pick up patients. The road is windy, narrow and surrounded on either side by utility lines and canyon walls.
Responding to car crashes or other emergencies in Nageezi, the helicopter lands on U.S. 550, Berve said.
The new landing zone in Navajo Dam will be near the intersection of N.M. 511 and N.M 173. The new zone in Nageezi will be near the Nageezi Chapter House, outside of a fence that surrounds the tribal government building.
Pilots don't need much to land AirCare safely. The land has to be relatively flat and be without trees, polls, other structures and blowing dirt.
Right now, there are no designated landing zones for AirCare, outside of medical buildings, in San Juan County.
Helicopter pilots work with emergency responders on the ground to find safe places to land, Berve said.
“What's nice is a place where we can minimize blowing debris and we know there is no obstacles,” Berve said.
San Juan Regional Medical Center has worked with hospitals and clinics on tribal lands and out-of-state to build landing pads for AirCare, Berve said.
AirCare can pick up patients directly from the scene of a medical emergency and at health care facilities.
The hospital is working with tribal officials to hopefully create more landing zones for AirCare in isolated parts of the Navajo Nation Indian Reservation, Berve said.
Both the proposed landing zones are being built in Commissioner Margaret McDaniel's district.
She said the safety improvement is welcomed because they are inexpensive and can save lives.
The landing zones will just be 50-foot by 50-foot square cement lots for helicopters to land. The total cost will be between $2,000 and $3,000, most of which is county labor, she said.
“When I've been out to the chapter houses, (responding to emergencies) has always been a concern,” she said. Building the landing zones “is fiscally responsible yet highly responsive.”
Ervin Chavez, the president of the Nageezi chapter, said the landing zones will improve safety among nearby residents.
He said the zones will also hopefully serve as a prototype and can be duplicated near more isolated chapters on the Navajo Nation.
“When you are having a heart attack, time is of the essence. You can't transport people over 50 or 60 miles of highway,” he said. “I think you'll see a few more (landing zones) in San Juan County over the next few years.”