Thriving regions need health & rescue services

April 11, 2018

Proposed changes to helicopter rescue services in the regions could cost lives.

. . Te Anau has not been included in the list of bases proposed under the National Ambulance Sector Office’s (NASO) call for air ambulance services and will now be covered by Queenstown.

NASO is seeking larger area-based contracts, including one for all of the South Island, because the demand for air ambulance services has been rising.

If demand is rising why would they cut out a base?

Under the proposal, Fiordland will be covered by helicopters from Queenstown, but only if the three companies that provide services in the South Island now – Heliworks in Queenstown, the Otago Helicopters in Dunedin and Garden City Helicopters in Christchurch – band together to bid for a contract to cover the whole of the South Island. 

Lakes District Air Rescue Trust chairman Jules Tapper said the three companies had formed a company called HEMS NZ and were considering bidding for the South Island work, but twin-engined helicopters were required under the new proposal and Te Anau would not be a base,

Lakes District Air Rescue Trust operates emergency rescue helicopters from bases in Queenstown and Te Anau.

Tapper said lives would undoubtedly be lost under the new proposal if Te Anau was no longer a base.

“They seem to think they can cover it from Queenstown but it is 20 to 25 minutes flying time from Queenstown to Te Anau before you head into Fiordland and lives will be lost in that time.

“Having only twin-engined machines is a huge increase in costs and one size does not fit all. The new plan excludes Squirrels. They’re fast, very nimble and can get into tight clearings and tight places where you can’t get big machines.” . . 

The trust covers the biggest geographical area in the country, from Haast to Alexandra and Invercargill and undertook rescues in the Southern Ocean.

It flew more than 400 missions a year and about 200 of them were from Te Anau.

The Te Anau based service also has experienced pilots who know the terrain and weather.

Southern Lakes Helicopters pilot Sir Richard Hayes, who was flying on Sunday and could not be reached for comment, was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to search and rescue and has more than 40 years’ experience flying.

Fiordland LandSAR secretary Stewart Burnby said the proposal to not have a base at Te Anau was “the most bloody stupid thing I’ve ever heard.”

He had been involved in search and rescue for more than 25 years in Fiordland, much of it with Hayes and said his loss of experience would cost lives.

“It sounds like a recipe for disaster. To put it bluntly Richard has the experience and the equipment, Queenstown don’t.

“Mountain flying is a very different beastie and he knows the place like the back of his hand. It sounds like politics is getting in the way of sensibility.”

Clutha Southland MP Hamish Walker said it was unacceptable that the service was at risk of being moved away from the region

“It is very concerning that local rescue helicopters in Te Anau, that have successfully operated for nearly three decades, may no longer receive Government funding after being left out of the Government’s proposals for helicopter rescue services.

“The Te Anau helicopters have helped to save lives and are an important part of a timely rescue response service for our region.”

The importance of local knowledge was illustrated last week:

. . . He [Tapper] said sometimes it was impossible for helicopters from Queenstown to get into the area.

“Last Friday was a classic example when there is no way a machine could’ve got in from outside of the area, it was shocking winds and snow and rain and yet Sir Richard Hayes was able to sneak up Lake Te Anau and up the Milford Track to the Mckinnon Pass where two ladies were succumbing to hypothermia – one was in a very, very bad way and would’ve undoubtedly died if she hadn’t been pulled out.

“Now that is a classic example where the machine, on the spot with local knowledge, was able to do the job successfully.” . . 

It’s not just South Island services under threat.

. . . A pilot for the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter in Taupō, Nat Every, said last year the Taupō and Rotorua rescue helicopters flew 420 missions around the region, which includes the Central Plateau and the Tongariro National Park.

Without bases there, people would be forced to wait longer for help.

“If you require a helicopter and you are in the Taupō/Central Plateau region, I think it’s fair to say – categorically – it will take longer for that helicopter to reach you than it currently does,” Mr Every said.

And the longer people are forced to wait, the more critical their situation becomes, he said.

“It is absolutely time-critical. You’re having a heart attack, you’re having breathing difficulties, you’re in a car accident, it’s your child, it’s your wife, it’s your children, your mother, your family member, you know every second counts,” Mr Every said.

The Taupō area would have to rely on helicopters coming from Taranaki, Hamilton, Tauranga, Hawke’s Bay or Palmerston North.

That could add an extra 35 minutes to an hour to the flight time. It would also leave those regions without access to a helicopter while it was being tasked elsewhere, he said. . . 

Mr Every said factors like the weather and the geography of an area were crucial.

“It’s all very well for someone to have a map of New Zealand and draw circles around several hospitals and go ‘OK well that circle covers that area and that area … and look I think we’ve go the country covered there’.

“As a paper exercise it all seems to work but what it doesn’t take into account is the weather, the hills, the geography,” he said. . . 

The government aims to eliminate road deaths.

That’s a highly aspirational goal which won’t be helped if the lives of accident victims are lost for want of rescue services relatively near by with pilots and crew who know the area.

It’s not just rescue services which are threatened. The Rural Health Alliance  might also be lost:

Rural Women New Zealand (RWNZ) are saddened to see that the Rural Health Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (RHAANZ) will cease operating if it does not receive government funding next week.

“RWNZ supports the work already done by RHAANZ in bringing together various rural groups and rural health providers to develop initiatives for rural communities,” says RWNZ Board Member and Health Portfolio Convenor, Margaret Pittaway.

“Remarkable work has been done to deliver the Rural Health Road Map which sets out a plan and priorities for achieving healthily rural communities.

“Being geographically isolated, often with significant distance to the nearest town or health centre means that rural communities have an immediate need of affordable and reliable access to all health services.

”The Government has committed to rural proofing government policy, and RHAANZ has a vital part to play in this development – without the continuation of RHAANZ, and the work it does, rural communities will go backwards.

“There is no other place where issues impacting the health and wellbeing of rural communities are considered concurrently, and the loss of achievements met and efforts made by RHAANZ will be detrimental for our rural people.
RWNZ urges the Government to recognise the good work that has been done by RHAANZ and to support its continuation,” says Mrs Pittaway. . . 

Throwing money from the Provincial Growth Fund at feasibility studies is not rural-proofing government policy.

Funding for essential health services must come first.


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