Local choppers can be the difference between life and death

April 24, 2018

Saving lives is more important than saving dollars, and that should be reflected in decisions about the nation’s rescue helicopter services, Federated Farmers President Katie Milne says.

Existing Te Anau, Taupo/Rotorua and Coromandel rescue chopper services were missing from a list of bases proposed under new, larger area contracts put out by the National Ambulance Sector Office (NASO).  Late on Tuesday came news that the Central Plateau could put in their own tender, but it would have to meet the new specifications to be successful.

Rescue helicopters are generally funded 50 per cent by government and 50 per cent by the community through sponsorship and donations.  NASO says the current model is financially unsustainable long-term, and wants all rescue choppers to be twin-engined.

“Last weekend we saw around 500 people join a protest rally over the threat to the Bay Trust Rescue Helicopter in Rotorua.  Locals were rightly concerned about the big coverage hole that would be left in the central North Island if rescue choppers only fly out of Hamilton and Tauranga,” Katie said.

“Feeling is also running high in Te Anau, Fiordland and Haast over the idea that a future service run out of Queenstown only will be sufficient.

“That adds 20-25 minutes of flight time, when we know every minute counts in the so-called ‘golden hour’ after a serious accident or emergency.  And that’s assuming the weather is playing ball and a helicopter from Queenstown can get up and over the mountains.”

The current service out of Te Anau includes pilot Sir Richard Hayes, who has 40 years’ flying experience.

“Local knowledge of terrain and conditions can be absolutely vital when the search is on for an injured farmer, road smash victim or hypothermic tramper,” Katie says.  “Local pilots are in a much better position to interpret garbled location details like ‘up the forked road past the old pub by that forestry that’s just been milled….’.”

Katie, who is a volunteer with her local fire brigade, says she has been involved in a couple of helicopter rescues where, without a handy local machine, with a pilot that knows the area, the outcome would have been very different.

“I understand why twin-engined choppers might be desirable.  But the fact is, when you’re bleeding out in a ravine somewhere, you’ll bless your fortune to see any helicopter.  It’s about the speed of the service, whether the pilot can find you, and whether he or she can manoeuvre the chopper into where you are.”

In cold, hard terms and for the purpose of investing in road safety measures in New Zealand, the value of a human life was put at $3.85 million in 2013 – though others said that was an under-estimate.

“Investment saves lives and dollars, never mind preventing the grief that comes with a fatality. We owe it to those who live and work, or visit as tourists and recreationalists, the more remote parts of our country to have local rescue chopper services that are fast and efficient,” Katie says.