Communities go to bat for helicopters

St John Ambulance aiding in the air rescue recovery of an injured tramper on the Hump Ridge Track in Western Fiordland. PHOTO: Supplied

Southland representatives are fighting to keep Te Anau as a base for emergency helicopter services amidst a proposal to move it to Queenstown.

Rising tourism demand and the particular danger of the Fiordland bush are some of the reasons community representatives and elected officials met on Monday to strategise their opposition to a proposal that could remove Te Anau's status as a base for air emergency services.

The Ministry of Health and ACC recently released a request for proposals the ministry says aims to build a national integrated network of air ambulance helicopter services that covers all of New Zealand.

A Ministry of Health statement said the proposal aimed to make the network well linked with other emergency services, available around the clock, and safer and more consistently clinically resourced than it was currently. 

However Te Anau, among other locations, is no longer included as a proposed base. 

The ministry said no decision has been made yet on where services would be based but coverage around the country, including the North Island’s central plateau, Coromandel and Te Anau, would continue.

On Monday Southland District councillor Ebel Kremer, Fiordland Medical Centre's David Hamilton, Te Anau Community Board chairwoman Rachel Cockburn, and Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker met to develop a strategy to put pressure on politicians to retain Te Anau's current status.

Cr Ebel Kremer slammed the move, saying it didn't make sense given Fiordland's unique terrain and Te Anau's strategic location to cover all of Southland.

The additional time flown from Queenstown may mean medical services lose the desired "golden hour" need to reach patients in need on time. 

"There are times that the Queenstown operators can't even get to Milford because of the weather conditions, but Te Anau operators can."

Cr Kremer cited the wealth of pilot experience resources available in Te Anau.

"Why on Earth would you sideline that in favour of having one contract for the entire South Island?

Southland District mayor Gary Tong said on behalf of all of Southland's communities he opposed the move, and the council would take a more active role in opposing the proposal if it continued to develop.

Lakes District Air Rescue Trust chairman Jules Tapper said the move, if realised, would result in a degraded service with a higher cost. Mr Tapper strongly disagreed the proposed requirement for only twin-engine helicopters would provide added safety. 

He said the bulk of helicopters used for commercial operations in New Zealand were single engine, and Squirrel helicopters often provided the agility needed to navigate tight spaces in Fiordland.

"They've tried to make a one-size-fits-all situation, and it doesn't work that way."

The Ministry of Health said the current helicopter fleet had an average age of 29 years and a third of the 20 primary air ambulance helicopters were single engine. 

According to the ministry, many helicopters operate with "higher than acceptable technical and safety risks and single engine helicopters do not allow full access to the patient for treatment". 

An online petition through Change.org opposing the national proposal had received more than 13,500 signatures as of press time.


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