Removing rural town's sole ambulance could risk toddler's life, says mother

Alana Cronin and her family, with toddler Indi (left).
Alana Cronin and her family, with toddler Indi (left). Photo credit: Alana Cronin/Supplied

A young mother says the proposal to remove a rural ambulance service will put her daughter's life at risk - and countless others too. 

Alana Cronin is a mother of three girls and her young daughter, Indi, lives with epilepsy and reflex anoxic seizures.

The family are from Murchison in the Tasman Region, a small town battling a proposed change to its ambulance service which the community says will end in death.

St John is proposing to replace the towns' only ambulance, along with its paid emergency medical technicians (EMT), with a first response vehicle staffed by volunteers.

First response vehicles are smaller ambulances made for transporting patients locally to meet a helicopter, or backup from an ambulance. They're crewed by volunteers and are made for narrow roads or difficult terrain.

Cronin told Newshub it could be the difference between life and death for two-and-a-half-year-old Indi.

"If she seizes for over five minutes or has a cluster, she needs urgent medical care and volunteers and a first response unit can't give that.

"It scares us a lot. It's putting our daughter's life at risk."

If Indi was to seize, the race to provide her with urgent medical care would be on - and Cronin doesn't believe the proposed system would win that race.

"If they have to send an ambulance from Richmond that's an hour-and-a-half on a good day, if there's roadworks, holdups - it could take well over an hour-and-a-half."

Sending an emergency helicopter isn't a perfect fix either - Murchison is set in a basin at the top of the South Island, and often experiences heavy fog.

"They can't get a chopper in - they're saying their response time won't change but it will!"

  • Do you know more? Email

James McMeekin, the St John District operations manager for Tasman, told Newshub St John  does not anticipate any "noticeable change" to the response time or care for patients in the area.

"This approach is not new. St John relies on volunteers to support the provision of ambulance services across the country, particularly in rural and remote areas where low workload does not justify employing full-time paid staff."

Local business owner Janelle Hocking told Newshub the change will end in death - and St John volunteers feel the same way.

"They don't want to be put in that situation, they don't want to have to deal with something like that and feel under-resourced."

Hocking says she spoke with a volunteer who attended a critical incident on State Highway 6 the previous week accompanied by an EMT.

"I asked her what she would have done if the EMT had not been there - and she said the man she treated would have died."

It's not just the residents of Murchison who will suffer though - Hocking says removing the ambulance will create a "huge hole" in the safety of the busy State Highway 6.

"Most of the critical accidents that happen on either side of our town are other Kiwis travelling through - they would be sending a first responder unit to what could be a life and death situation, to a critical incident - they can't give the care, so they need to wait for an EMT to arrive and help with triage, loading the patient and then driving them to hospital."

Funding pushed through by the Government in 2017 aimed to ensure all ambulances were double-staffed - both for the safety of paramedics and the community - Hocking says the introduction of a first response unit side-steps this requirement.

"St John is saying they've double-staffed all their ambulances, and hiding behind the scenes that actually if it's not an ambulance they can send it out with a single volunteer," she told Newshub. 

"It could be a volatile domestic situation between a husband and wife, and in other towns you'd be sent out with two paramedics so it's safer but hey if you're in Murchison and that happens we'll just send one."

McMeekin says that "ideally" all St John vehicles would be double-crewed - but it doesn't always happen.

"Where volunteer double-crewing is not possible, we enable volunteers to choose to respond single crewed, but immediately back them up with a second nearby ambulance. In Murchison, we also have a relationship with local PRIME responders who responded to 90 percent of all incidents in the last 12 months."

He stressed that the service is dedicated to the safety of patients and volunteers. "St John is committed to working with our people, health and emergency service partners and the wider community to ensure we maintain an effective service in Murchison and other rural and remote areas of New Zealand."

The feedback period for the proposed change has now closed and St John will consider it's approach to the Murchison service over the coming weeks.