Norwalk Hospital's first community forum on its $102 million expansion and renovation project was attended by only a dozen people Wednesday night, but audience members left impressed.

"I think it's a tremendous presentation. This really puts Norwalk Hospital and the city on the cutting edge of medicine," said Allen Heyd, of Norwalk, one of several volunteers at the hospital who attended the hourlong slide show in the hospital's Richard S. Perkin Auditorium. "There should be great improvement on the efficiency of how they take care of patients. Overall, I think it's an excellent plan."

Julie Fatherley, of Westport, said the project, which is slated to begin this month and end in three years, "looks very exciting."

"It's the implementation that I'm curious (about), to see how it works. I certainly think it's needed. This is a critical area here, the location," she said.

Bob Fatherley, Julie's husband and an Emergency Department volunteer for about three years, said he too was interested in how the hospital would function after the project. "It's great in theory. I will be curious to see how effective it is in practice," he said.

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Bob Fatherley said the hospital needed to expand in capacity and staffing, and the part of the project he most liked was increasing the Emergency Department from a capacity of 25,000 patients a year to 65,000 patients a year. "Demands on Norwalk Hospital for increased emergency room services is obvious," he said. "It is absolutely essential that Norwalk Hospital enlarge and enhance its emergency room service because we are way overextended.

"The fact they are responding to this in a substantial way is laudatory. They have no choice. They have to," he said. "I have every confidence that it will work."

But Bob Fatherley added that success would be determined not by "walnut walls and carpeting," but by "human beings hired to do the job.

"It's the people ... If the people aren't any good, the plant doesn't matter," he said, adding that the hospital's existing medical and secretarial staff is "extraordinary" and "angels in disguise."

Another volunteer, who declined to give his name, sported a pin on his lapel that identified Norwalk Hospital as being in the top 5 percent of hospitals nationwide. He said only about 280 hospitals in America are in that category.

Jim Haynes, the hospital's director of facility operations, gave the presentation along with Lisa Brady, the hospital's senior vice president and chief operating officer.

Haynes said he wasn't really surprised more people did not turn out for the forum, saying the project already had gone through public hearings with Norwalk's Zoning Commission and neighbors also had heard about the plans in focus group meetings.

The project involves 95,500 square feet of new construction (14,000 square feet represent mechanical spaces) and 35,000 square feet of renovated space on the third and fifth floors of the main pavilion, Brady said.

The main component of the project is construction of a five-story ambulatory, or outpatient, pavilion on the hospital's north campus on Maple Street. The hospital last constructed a pavilion in 1975, though it added eighth and ninth floors to its main pavilion in 1991, Brady said.

"More and more healthcare is moving to outpatient. The objective is to assure the community we're addressing their longterm health needs ... and can grow key outpatient services integral to the hospital," she said.

The second and fourth floors in the new pavilion will only have mechanical equipment, while the third floor will be "our largest floor as far as occupied space," Brady said. She said the third floor will have radiation oncology and medical oncology departments (collectively known as the Whittingham Cancer Center), the Emergency Department and a wound-care department.

The Emergency Department will expand from the current 16,500 square feet and 31 treatment rooms to more than 31,000 square feet and 46 treatment rooms, Brady said. She said the ER rooms also will be larger and the department will have a capacity of 65,000 patients a year -- about 15,000 more people than currently visit the ER every year.

"It's a challenge for every hospital to manage flow in emergency departments, and it makes it even more difficult when you don't have adequate space. Having more space should help us significantly with that," Brady said.

The Whittingham Cancer Center also will be larger and enable the hospital to consolidate chemotherapy treatment from two locations to one location. It also will include a high-dose radiation room for treatment of gynecological cancers and another linear accelerator, and its healing garden will double in size, Brady and Haynes said. The hospital will be adding three hyperbaric chambers in its wound care department, Brady said.

The fifth floor will have areas for treatment of digestive diseases and outpatient surgery, Brady said. The space devoted to operating rooms will rise from 23,000 square feet to 33,000 square feet, and treatment of digestive diseases, now done in two areas, will be consolidated into one area, she said.

The hospital's helipad, now in a driveway, will move temporarily to an Elmcrest Terrace parking lot before its final destination on top of the pavilion, Brady and Haynes said. The Federal Aviation Administration and state Department of Transportation worked with the hospital to identify the best temporary location for the helipad, Haynes said.

The first floor will have the outpatient entrance, a reception area, lobby and a covered walkway from the parking garage.

The project includes dedicated drop-off areas for the Whittingham Cancer Center and Emergency Department and easy access to departments from elevators, Haynes said. Once the elevator doors open, "you'll be right in the department you're looking for," he said.

The project will be done in three phases, Haynes said.

The first phase, projected to last from December to April, includes building a new driveway for ambulances, a small parking lot, a temporary Emergency Department entrance and a waiting room and relocating the helipad to the Elmcrest Terrace parking lot.

Beginning Dec. 17, the hospital's ambulatory entrance, now located on the third level on Maple Street, will be closed, and outpatients and visitors, will use the main entrance. But entrances for the Emergency Department, medical office, maternity and Cancer Center patients will remain the same.

The second phase, expected to last one to two months, involves the reconfiguration of the Maple Street parking lot.

The third phase involves construction of the new pavilion, expected to last from the spring of 2013 to the winter of 2014, and interior renovations, projected to last from the winter of 2014 to the fall of 2015, Haynes said.

Norwalk Hospital's expansion and renovation is being funded through donations, working capital and financing. Brady said the hospital had a goal of raising $30 million from philanthropic gifts and has raised $26 million so far. "We are still continuing to raise funds specific to this project," she said.