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St. Louis Emergency Crews Tackle Highway Closure Snags

ST. LOUIS– Lights. Sirens. Backups?

Emergency responders are finalizing plans to avoid delays after Highway 40 closes for reconstruction in January. Shutting down the highway will remove a major route linking St. Louis County suburbs to several major hospitals, while forcing tens of thousands of motorists to find the best alternate on other highways and city streets.

For those firefighters and paramedics, the highway closure will make coordinating emergency response even more complicated.

There s a lot of anxiety, said Clayton Fire Chief Mark Thorp. We just don t know for sure what to expect.

Some St. Louis County fire agencies are considering whether to halt ambulance runs to Highway 40-corridor hospitals east of Interstate 170 in nonlife-threatening cases in favor of facilities closer to Interstate 270.

Several suburban departments have set up new landing spots for ARCH Air Medical Service helicopters in recent weeks as an alternative to potentially congested streets following the highway closure.

Some agencies are taking smaller steps. The Creve Coeur Fire Protection District, for instance, will likely add another ambulance crew to the two it already has to provide coverage when other vehicles are caught in traffic snarls.

Last month, the Metropolitan St. Louis Emergency Transport Oversight Commission noted that some routes to local hospitals might not be available while Highway 40 is rebuilt. And, the commission noted, severe traffic conditions may force emergency medical agencies to take some patients to the closest hospital to prevent delays in medical care.

Fire Chief Dave Frazier Jr. of the West County EMS and Fire Protection District said patients with life-threatening or critical medical conditions already are taken to the closest appropriate hospital.

For that agency, it means St. John s Mercy Medical Center for trauma cases or St. John s, Missouri Baptist Medical Center, Des Peres or St. Luke s hospitals for cardiac cases.

But West County fire officials may stop transporting patients to hospitals east of Spoede Road — including Barnes-Jewish, St. Mary s Medical Center or St. Louis University — for less critical cases because long transport times will keep ambulances out of service.

The Creve Coeur fire agency is considering a similar measure.

Most major hospitals along the eastern half of the Highway 40 project have affiliates to the west.

Right now, it doesn t look like it is going to be prudent to transport these people through this mass maze of congestion, said Larry Ashby, chief medical officer for the Creve Coeur District.

Some suburban communities — including Clayton, Brentwood and Ladue — have asked about designating new helicopter landing zones, said Bob Abrams of ARCH Air Medical Service.

The landing zones were plotted at various spots throughout the communities. Each had to provide enough room for a helicopter to land and be free of obstructions, such as power lines, trees and streetlights. The sites were programmed into the dispatch computer.

Meantime, St. Louis County is installing a signal pre-emption system on Clayton Road allowing fire and ambulance crews to trigger green lights at key intersections in emergencies. Clayton Road is a primary east-west thoroughfare and will be designated as a primary emergency route.

We know initially there will be a lot of confusion and a lot of traffic issues, Thorp said.

The five-mile stretch of Highway 40 between I-170 and Ballas Road will close on Jan. 2. The work will shift to the east of I-170 in 2009.

Linda Wilson, a Missouri Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said every highway and major road between Interstates 70 and 44 are expected to fill with cars during morning and afternoon peak-driving times.

Congestion is expected to be worse near the closed Highway 40 segments. Have you mapped out an alternate route for when Highway 40 is shut down? Talk in our forum. Plan your Highway 40 strategy, and get up-to-the-minute traffic information. Get the latest updates on the Highway 40 project.