Air ambulance plan has rural communities worried

Rural communities say they've been "blindsided" by a proposal to withdraw helicopter bases in Taupō, Rotorua and Te Anau.

 The National Ambulance Sector Office (NASO) has proposed a new model for more streamlined air ambulance services in centralised locations. But the new service excludes regions that are home to some of New Zealand's world-renowned tourist attractions. 

Southland Mayor Gary Tong, who has been involved in multiple rescue operations in Fiordland, called NASO's plan "a risk to life".

Mr Tong said successful rescues come down to time, experience of the pilot and knowledge of the Fiordland terrain. 

NASO's plan suggests Queenstown helicopters can serve the Te Anau region, despite adding an extra 20 minutes of flying time.

"It appears to me that they've drawn a couple of circles on a map and thought they could do it better," the Southland Mayor remarked. "Personally I don't believe they can."

Petition to stop the proposal

A change.org petition calls upon ACC Minister Iain Lees-Galloway and Health Minister Dr David Clark to maintain rescue helicopter bases in Taupō, Rotorua and Te Anau.

The petition has been signed by over 16,000 individuals. 

Simon O'Neill, the man behind the petition, told RadioLIVE's Rural Exchange that the Taupō community is outraged with the proposal to axe their helicopters. 

As an experienced first responder at Ruapehu, Mr O'Neill believes people will die under NASO's plan.

He told Rural Exchange that Taupō would have to depend on helicopters from Hamilton or Palmerston North, which would tack an extra 20 to 30 minutes to rescue trips.

"People are really angry and concerned that perhaps their families and their friends themselves are going to be left dangling if they have a medical emergency," he said. 

Mr O'Neill said he has yet to hear about any consultation between NASO and Taupō stakeholders on the restructuring of air ambulances. 

"The local search and rescue police - they're just as blindsided as we are."

Creating an equitable service for New Zealand

But not everyone agrees that the proposed plan will prove negative. 

Dr Ian Civil, leader of the Major Trauma National Clinical Network, believes the restructuring plan will improve national services.

"My interpretation of it is that [NASO] has absolutely designed a better service. And that means better helicopters, better crew, and better destinations."

Dr Civil told Rural Exchange that community-driven services can be limited in their capabilities, whereas a centralised rescue service could upgrade its equipment and training to be used across multiple regions. 

"We are likely to do more benefit to more people than an ad hoc service which is driven by the finances of the community in which the injury occurs." 

He said the current system relies too heavily on the regions and staff to support their air ambulance services. 

Meanwhile, Mr O'Neill will march alongside fellow community members on Monday to protest NASO's proposal.

Newshub / Rural Exchange.