What the penny will pay for: lift of life

Tucked in amongst some of the more costly projects on the list of the penny sales tax capital projects is a $16,800 project that has the potential to benefit every citizen in Chester County. It’s a benefit Chester County Emergency Management Director Eddie Murphy hopes you’ll never have to take advantage of. The capital project is to construct two concrete helicopter landing pads, known as LZs or landing zones, at Exit 55 and 62 along I-77. The locations are so an ambulance transporting a medical patient can transfer them to a waiting helicopter for advanced treatment.

The two landing zones will join a list of 35 other landing zones identified throughout the county, established several years ago through Emergency Management’s foresight.

Murphy exhibited a book that is given to all fire services and other emergency workers (including helicopter crews) detailing the LZ procedures and locating them both by GPS/ longitude-latitude coordinates and by the more common name, like ‘ball field at Great Falls High School’.

“Notice this particular LZ and you see the grass,” Murphy said, showing the entry for a particular LZ that included a simple map, a photo of the location and the coordinates. The map showed a flat area of a field where the grass was a little high.

“The blades and rotors on helicopters take in the grass silt and sand and suck it back into the engine. And you can’t land in a parking lot; one of the places we land, they keep the ground torn up and it’s like landing in a bowl of red dirt, and you’ve got to wet it down before you try and land,” Murphy said.

A firefighter, Keith Hudson, started the LZ program several years ago and began marking out the places in the county where a helicopter could land to transport a medical patient. The 35 zones that resulted from this project are located throughout the county.

“What we try to do is place the LZs throughout the county. You need a place that’s clear of power lines and you need a surface that’s good for landing,” Murphy explains. “A lot of these are high grass areas, and if nobody cuts the grass, a helicopter has trouble landing there.

“The purpose of what we’re doing at the interstate (at Exist 55 and 62) is to put two landing zones in those locations. When the SCDOT resurfaced the road, they piled up the ground up asphalt in these areas. The work left that area relatively level, but it has a fine mist of asphalt. What we want to do is pour a 40 x 40 concrete pad (for the helicopter LZs). What the helicopters have been doing up till now is landing on the interstate, in the area between the on and off ramps of these exits. One time we landed in a nearby parking lot of a gas station, and when they went to take off, the helicopter wouldn’t crank back up. Imagine if they had been on the interstate when that happened? Joe’s Wrecker Service may move a lot of stuff…but I couldn’t have told you what shape the helicopter would have been in after he moved it,” Murphy said.

Emergency Management does not have any capital funds for construction of landing pads like these, Murphy pointed out. Much of the costly equipment the agency has gotten have come through grants, Murphy said. He said he has been responsible for getting at least $3 million in grant money for Emergency Management. Most of that was for equipment in the EOC, the Emergency Operations Center.

So if there are 35 LZs already established, does Chester County really need two more along I-77?

The answer is an unqualified yes, Murphy said.

“On our large map, with LZs as scattered as they are, motorists pick any road to have a wreck in this county. They don’t arrange to have one just down the road from a landing zone, or just in front of a fire department. They pick the most out-of-the-way roads, where trees are overhanging the spot and there are overhead power lines,” said Murphy.

The location of the two concrete landing pads are all about access and time, and in life and safety, those are everything, he said.

Anthony Knight with Emergency Management pointed out right now, for example, there is only one LZ in the Fort Lawn area, at the old Elliot Plant, and Murphy added for a five or six mile district, that’s pretty spread out.

“These LZs will serve down Highway 97 and areas around it. It won’t just be for the people on the interstate.

“The reason for the landing pads, adding to the total number of landing zones we have, is you’re trying to get as many safe, already marked, located and named zones as you can,” Murphy said.