Air rescue services at risk

Te Anau's Southern Lakes Helicopters service. Photo: Lakes District Air Rescue Trust

FIRST it was the Lumsden Maternity Centre and now the future of Te Anau’s air ambulance helicopter service is in doubt.

“In a short space of time, we are losing both the Lumsden Maternity Centre and the rescue helicopter base,” Te Anau GP of 11 years Paula King said.

“It is so demoralising.

The National Ambulance Sector Office (NASO), a joint office between ACC and the Ministry of Health (MoH), is proposing to establish a new streamlined and sustainable model for air ambulance services in centralised locations, which excludes a base in Te Anau.

If the proposal goes ahead, rescue helicopter services for Te Anau, Fiordland and Western Southland would be based out of Queenstown.

“We do support a dedicated helicopter in Queenstown. It would be a welcome addition to the service, but not as a replacement [to the Te Anau base],” Dr King said.

Under the proposal, the only personnel who could accompany the rescue helicopter would be doctors with a background in intensive care and emergency medicine, thereby excluding GPs from providing medical support.

At present, four GPs and one nurse practitioner in Te Anau provide medical support for the air ambulance helicopter service.

Dr King said for patients with minor injuries, such as sprained ankles and broken bones, it was “nonsensical” and an inefficient use of overskilled personnel.

It would also result in medical staff in Te Anau becoming deskilled in advanced level care, she said.

At least once a year there were incidences where multiple rescue helicopters were required in the Fiordland area, either at a scene with multiple victims or where several incidences occurred simultaneously, she said.

“The majority of patients will wait longer for retrieval due to a reduced number of machines covering the area and a reduced number of suitably qualified personnel available.

“It is going to make a mockery of our service if we cannot respond in a sensible timeframe.”

Lakes District Air Rescue Trust chairman Jules Tapper said 200 rescue missions were based out of Te Anau last year, the vast majority of which were for NASO and MoH.

“We are terribly disappointed Te Anau has been left out of the mix in the tender document and terribly disappointed the work of Sir Richard Hayes, who has been knighted for goodness sake, has not been recognised.

“He has made an extraordinary contribution [to air rescue].”

Sir Richard, who has 40 years’ flying experience, is the managing director of Heliworks Queenstown and Te Anau’s Southern Lakes Helicopters, which is subcontracted to the trust to provide air rescue services in the region.

Federated Farmers New Zealand president Katie Milne said saving lives was more important than saving dollars.

If a future service was run out of Queenstown, it would add 20-25 minutes of flight time to rescues in Fiordland, she said.

“We know every minute counts in the so-called ‘golden hour’ after a serious accident or emergency. And that’s assuming the weather is playing ball and a helicopter from Queenstown can get up and over the mountains.

“Local knowledge of terrain and conditions can be absolutely vital when the search is on for an injured farmer, road smash victim or hypothermic tramper,” she said.

Tenders for the new service close on Monday, with the new service expected to be operational by November 1.

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