Plans for nationwide rescue helicopter shake-up

A shake-up is on the way which may see communities having to fundraise for newer helicopters.

A shake-up is on the way which may see communities having to fundraise for newer helicopters.

A big shake-up of rescue helicopter services across the country is being planned by the Government, but details are likely to stay under wraps until after the election, the services' chief says.

Auckland's Rescue Helicopter Trust chief executive Greg Barrows says there have been calls to rationalise the service, including by amalgamating some of the 11 trusts to make them more efficient.

This ties in with a new major trauma policy released in March, which will see patients taken to the most appropriate hospital, whenever feasible and safe, rather than the closest.

While the Government contributes to operation costs helicopters and equipment comes from fundraising.

While the Government contributes to operation costs helicopters and equipment comes from fundraising.

Included was an Air Desk for rescue helicopters on a two-year trial with $591,000 funding annually from the Ministry of Health and ACC.

READ MORE: * Triumph and tragedy, the life of rescue helicopter crewman

Based in Auckland, all staff have paramedic backgrounds and air ambulance experience.

Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter in action.

Nelson Marlborough Rescue Helicopter in action.

"This is particularly important in things like outcomes for stroke patients by trying to get them to Auckland Hospital as soon as possible - even if they're in Rotorua. The Air Desk should make the use of the helicopter more efficient." Barrows says.

Pushing the current tender period out from three years to as much as 10 years has been suggested.

Rescue helicopter trusts have a contract with the National Ambulance Sector Office which terminates in March 2018, but the Government has asked them to roll them over until October 2018, Barrow says.

Standardising medical care across the regions is hoped for.

Standardising medical care across the regions is hoped for.

With helicopters in the national fleet generally 25 years or older, a tender for a longer period could see communities under pressure to upgrade and fund newer replacement helicopters to ensure they last the distance.

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Government contributes about half of operation costs nationally but it varies from region to region depending on the local communities' ability to come up with funding. Buying helicopters and medical equipment comes entirely from donations/sponsorships.

Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust gets less from the Government as they have a strong population base.

Electricity Rescue Helicopter in action.
Delwyn Dickey

Electricity Rescue Helicopter in action.

Further north, the Northland Emergency Services Trust receives about 70 per cent funding of operational costs, chief executive Paul Ahlers says.

The Government is looking at efficiencies and economic savings, Ahler says.

But trusts run very tight ships already, and the country gets very good value for money when compared with overseas operations, he says.

While Ahlers acknowledges amalgamating various trusts could save on administration costs, he isn't convinced there is enough of an overlap in services around the country to warrant it.

He welcomes the discussion to create a more integrated service but would also like to see more funding from the Government to take the heavy burden off local communities.

The ability to fundraise more in Auckland sees the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter with doctors on board seven days a week, 10 hours a day, and advanced paramedics on site 24 hours a day. Plus all the drugs and medical gear they need.

"We can do blood transfusions on the side of the road, if we need to, or in the helicopter. We can call ahead a 'code crimson' to let the hospital know and so it can be prepared for a seriously ill patient. There's a lot of things that they have been able to carry out because of their relationship with the Auckland District Health Board for the supply of doctors," Barrows says.

A similar level of healthcare should be available across the country, he says.

"Other trusts have an arrangement to provide paramedics through St Johns. But they aren't onsite and have to be called off the road and into the base which adds to the delay in other areas."

"Amalgamation would likely see a higher standard of clinical delivery and more focused on the patient rather than about the helicopter."

The uncertainty has already seen Kawau Islanders halt fundraising to establish a $25,000 GPS flight path between Mechanics Bay on the Auckland waterfront to the Island in the Hauraki Gulf and Auckland Hospital, until its sorted out.

"Westpac would likely need to update its helicopter fleet which would possibly negate the need for a dedicated Helicopter Rescue Path through improved software that comes with the latest helicopters," Kawau Island residents and ratepayers association spokesman Andrew Fyfe says.

 - Stuff

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