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New medical helipcopter landing zones in Va. considered

JAMES CITY, Va. Time may be saved if the James City County Fire Department adds new landing zones.

A medical emergency at home often means waiting impatiently for an ambulance to squeal down your street and take you to the hospital.

But what if a helicopter could land in a nearby lawn and whisk you away?

In vast, rural James City, where the swelling population has led to an increase of ill and injured patients needing to be airlifted, fire department officials are working to expand their list of makeshift landing areas.

There are currently nine such landing zones and James City County Fire Department is considering about four more sites, said Capt. Alton Catlett.

Ideal locations have no above-ground wires and as few trees and buildings as possible. Road access is necessary because fire engines are deployed along with the medical evacuation helicopters. And officials avoid flat areas with loose rocks that could be kicked up and damage the aircraft. All of those restrictions mean most sites are parking lots and school fields. But the district may add a few subdivisions' private fields when the final decision is made this summer.

Fields in at least two large residential developments -- Stonehouse, in northern James City, and Governor's Land, off Route 5 -- are being considered for chopper landing zones.

The Kingsmill subdivision, which sits between the city of Williamsburg and the James River, is home to such a zone, although it's labeled a "special site." This means it's not routinely used, Catlett said.

The fire department has declined to release a full list of sites, citing safety and security reasons.

Medical evacuations, once a rarity in James City, have climbed over the past few years to about twice a month or more, Catlett said. Being able to give most pilots coordinates for a predetermined site to land when it's available can save invaluable time, Catlett said.

Parking lots at the popular shopping hub Prime Outlets are notoriously packed, so any injured shopper is driven to a medical evacuation site on a field at nearby Lafayette High School. Busch Gardens, another place of high activity, is able to supply an overflow parking lot.

Jim Sage, a member of Stonehouse's homeowners association board of directors, said he was optimistic for his subdivision to be approved for the site, but added the development's 350 or so families should be asked their opinion as well.

"I could not imagine why they wouldn't want this," Sage said.

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