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Coromandel in danger of losing rescue helicopter base

The Coromandel Peninsula is in danger of losing its rescue helicopter base in Whitianga.

On 26 March, without any public announcement, the Ministry of Health issued a “Request for Proposals” (RFP) in terms of which interested parties can tender to operate an air ambulance service in one or more of three regions in New Zealand. The regions are the South Island, Auckland and Northland and the North Island south of Auckland. According to the RFP, the regions were “…aligned to the [District Health Board] regional structure, to provide greater value for money and improve patent outcomes through operational efficiencies.”

The RFP is stipulating that air ambulance services have to be provided across the three regions from a list of 14 bases. The existing helicopter bases in Whitianga, Rotorua, Taupo and Te Anau are excluded from the list.
The RFP was issued after cabinet approved a business case, “Reconfiguration of the National Air Ambulance Service,” early last month.

It’s possible that the tenders can be awarded to overseas companies/organisations.

There are at the moment 12 rescue helicopter operators in New Zealand.

Although the Coromandel is in the Waikato DHB region, the air ambulance service on the Peninsula is provided by the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust. The rescue helicopter base in Whitianga is owned by the Coromandel Rescue Helicopter Trust.

In addition to maintaining the Whitianga rescue helicopter base, the Coromandel Rescue Helicopter Trust is continuously fundraising to improve the air ambulance service on the Peninsula and to keep the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust’s helicopters flying. A few years ago, they have installed GPS approach systems across the Peninsula.

Community support is the Coromandel Rescue Helicopter Trust’s only source of funding. The rescue helicopter base in Whitianga cost more than $600,000 to develop. The base was opened six years ago. Prior to the opening of the base, an Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust helicopter was for many years based at the Whitianga Airport over the December/January holiday period. The helicopter stayed out in the open and was during the night guarded by Mercury Bay Community Patrol volunteers.

The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust operates two well-equipped BK117 twin-engine helicopters. The helicopters will be replaced later this year by two brand new state-of-the-art, twin-engine helicopters that have already been ordered. One of the helicopters is earmarked to be permanently based in Whitianga.

All Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust crews are made up of a pilot, crewman and paramedic. Medical doctors are often participating in rescue missions and blood transfusions are possible en route to a hospital.

The Coromandel Rescue Helicopter Trust hosted a function at the rescue helicopter base in Whitianga in February this year to thank many businesses, organisations and individuals for their support during 2017. At the function, Greg Barrow, CEO of the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust, said it made sense for one of their two helicopters to be based in Whitianga. “We don’t have enough work for two helicopters in Auckland and the Coromandel doesn’t have enough work to keep one helicopter busy all the time,” he said. “But the two areas together keep both helicopters fully utilised. It’s far quicker to get to an emergency on the Peninsula than from Auckland, or Hamilton or Tauranga for that matter, and it’s also quicker to get from Whitianga to Great Barrier Island and some of the areas south of Auckland than from our base in Auckland.”

Andrew Inder, the Ministry of Health’s community and ambulance manager, said in a written statement that no decision has as yet been made on where any rescue helicopters will be based, but rescue helicopter coverage around the New Zealand will continue, including the Coromandel, the North Island’s central plateau and Te Anau.

“It’s important to note there will be an improved nationwide helicopter service that can provide better clinical support for patients,” Mr Inder said. “Air ambulance helicopter services are a critical part of how we respond to health emergencies in this country, how we get people to the right care at the right time and we know how much our communities rely on them. The challenge is how to keep those services fit for purpose in the future as service complexity grows.

“The current [rescue]helicopter fleet has an average age of 29 years and a third of the 20 primary air ambulance helicopters are single engine and over time will need to be replaced with more modern [twin-engine] helicopters.

“[The] recently released [RFP] aims to build a national integrated network that covers all of New Zealand, is well linked with other emergency services, is available around the clock and is safer and is more consistently clinically resourced than it is currently.

“One thing agreed by all those involved in providing, funding, organising or using these services is the importance of making improvements that achieve better outcomes for patients requiring air ambulance helicopter services.

“Air ambulance helicopter services need both appropriate support and optimal configuration so that the complicated mix of clinical support, aviation safety and sustainable funding is managed to give the best result.

“A number of elements contribute to the responsiveness of the service so it’s available to all New Zealanders. Location is just one of those elements. Other factors include availability of trained staff, stronger tasking and coordination and better placement of helicopters to provide a more consistent service to more communities.

“Air ambulances operate on a similar basis to road ambulance services, with fundraising by local communities critical to their sustainability. In 2016, the Ministry, ACC, and district health boards provided approximately 63 per cent of national service funding for air ambulances, with the remaining 37 per cent raised by local communities.”

Walter Russell, chairman of the Coromandel Rescue Helicopter Trust, said they were completely blindsided by the RFP. “We had no idea that this was coming,” he said. “I also take issue with what Andrew Inder said. The RFP doesn’t give any indication that the list of 14 bases where the rescue helicopters are going to be based is up for discussion. It looks like a done deal to me.

“I also fail to see how patients on the Coromandel will get, in Mr Inder’s words, ‘better outcomes’ when we don’t have a rescue helicopter based in Whitianga. We already have a very good helicopter, with an even better one to come later this year. How any so-called ‘reconfiguration’ of the air ambulance service across New Zealand will provide us with improved clinical support, is beyond me. The Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust crews are some of the very best in the industry. What I can see is that we’ll be ending up with worse clinical care as it will take a rescue helicopter longer to reach an emergency on the Peninsula. If we lose our rescue helicopter base in Whitianga, lives will be lost.

“And I don’t buy the statement that the government funds rescue helicopter operations across New Zealand to the tune of 63 per cent. My understanding is that the government is providing no funding to any of the existing rescue helicopter operators, including the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust. All the government is doing is paying for services provided by the operators.

“I also understand that government payments make up only about 50 per cent of the income of the rescue helicopter operators. The rest is self-generated through sponsorships and community fundraising activities.

“That brings me to another thing. The RFP is structured so that community fundraising and sponsorships can continue. I can’t see how anyone on the Coromandel Peninsula will continue to support an air ambulance service that’s not based in Whitianga and that’s operated by an overseas company. If a commercial enterprise ends up operating a rescue helicopter service, all fundraising will be clean profit for the enterprise.

“Closure of our rescue helicopter base in Whitianga means we’ll be going back 10 years.”

Sandra Goudie, Thames District Council mayor, agrees with Mr Russell. “I can’t see any reason why the Whitianga rescue helicopter base has to close,” she says. “It’s a real shame that whomever convinced cabinet to approve the business case the RFP is based on, didn’t think things through with regard to the Coromandel Peninsula. I hope some sense will prevail before any final decisions are made.”

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