County-USC hospital reopens rooftop heliport

Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center reopened its rooftop helicopter pad this week, six months after the state-of-the-art facility halted landings because helicopter fumes were leaking into the hospital’s ventilation system.

The landings, which resumed Tuesday, were cleared only after hospital officials installed more-robust filters over the facility’s air intake system at about twice the cost of the original filters. The replacement filters are similar to those used for the air intake system at Los Angeles International Airport, said Pete Delgado, the hospital’s chief executive, and cost the hospital about $179,000.

Delgado estimates that the filters will need to be replaced every six months, which could change depending on how quickly they are depleted.

County officials had determined that the original carbon filters had been improperly installed, Delgado said. But even after they were installed correctly in March, odor problems continued.


“We felt like the best way to do this is to go ahead and replace all the filters with this new option,” Delgado said. “Now that we got the new filters, we feel confident that we can use the helipad the way it’s supposed to be used.”

Still, the hospital is directing pilots of the largest helicopters -- manufactured by Sikorsky -- to limit idling time on the rooftop. Previously, the Sikorsky helicopters idled on the rooftop while waiting for paramedics to return. Now, those helicopters are to wait at the hospital’s older, ground-based helipad.

Landings on the roof initially triggered fire alarms and caused fire protective doors to automatically close at the $1.02-billion facility when it opened in November. For months afterward, hospital workers complained about inhaling exhaust odors every time a helicopter landed.

The helipad was closed Feb. 6 after The Times made inquiries about the ventilation system. That same month, County-USC was fined $560 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health after investigators validated employee complaints about the fumes. The hospital is appealing the fine.


Tests of the hospital’s air quality never found it to be unsafe, Delgado said.

In 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration warned that air quality in buildings could be compromised if heliports were located too close to fresh-air vents and said those issues should be resolved during facility design.