Rescue helicopter advisory committee meets on its outskirts

Regional Advisory Committee members (sitting, from left) Tony Roberts, Gary Fox, chair Peter Duncan and Tenterfield Support Group's John Landers and (standing) Aaron Ryan, Stuart George, Mark Humphries and the service's regional marketing manager Zeke Huish.
Regional Advisory Committee members (sitting, from left) Tony Roberts, Gary Fox, chair Peter Duncan and Tenterfield Support Group's John Landers and (standing) Aaron Ryan, Stuart George, Mark Humphries and the service's regional marketing manager Zeke Huish.

The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter's advisory committee journeyed to the outskirts of the service's coverage area this week to strengthen connections with the communities it helps.

One committee member, however, didn't need to travel far. Tenterfield Hospital manager Tony Roberts hosted the meeting on the hospital campus. The volunteer committee is comprised primarily of businesspeople, but committee chair Peter Duncan noted it was valuable to have Mr Robert's medical expertise on hand.

The committee's mission is to provide advice to the service's board of directors and management team, on matters of relevance to members' local communities.

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The gentlemen dined with community representatives on arriving in town, including mayor Peter Petty, John Landers and Margaret Cooper of the Helicopter Support Group, and Harry Bolton and Caitlin Reid alternating their council and Rotary representative hats. Federal MP Barnaby Joyce even swung by as the group was breakfasting on Tuesday.

Mr Duncan said it was good to receive feedback on the efforts of community groups like the Helicopter Support Group and Rotary Club to keep the service running. While the Health Department staffs the helicopters with doctors and paramedics, the support organisation provides the pilot and crew.

Mr Duncan, Mr Roberts and their fellow committee members belong to the Northern Regional Advisory Committee (RAC) based out of Lismore, and Mr Duncan stressed that the money raised in communities like Tenterfield stay in their region.

The service now has four of the larger, better-equipped AW139 aircraft, with bases at Newcastle and Tamworth as well as Lismore, with one helicopter filling in as the others have downtime for maintenance. Mr Duncan said these aircraft have a longer range so that it is possible to service areas as far from base as Inverell, and can fly in a wider range of weather and light conditions than previous models.

While Lismore Base Hospital is the northern region's 'home' hospital, patients are transported to the hospital best suited to deal with their condition. Flights are often diverted to Gold Coast Hospital or Lady Cilento Children's Hospital in Brisbane.

Given how vital the first hours can be in the aftermath of an accident or onset of a critical condition, the helicopter acts as a flying ICU (Intensive Care Unit), so Mr Duncan said patients are in good hands regardless of their destination.

The northern region helicopter is in the air most days, undertaking around 360 missions per year, and no patient has to pay. Mr Roberts said the service does several retrievals a month from Tenterfield Hospital, with more accident retrievals in the district which bypass the hospital.

Mr Duncan made special mention of the 500 volunteers in the region. without which he said the service couldn't continue to operate. Committee members dropped into the local rescue helicopter op shop in High Street to check out its operation, with includes a turnover which continues to belie its small population base.

The 'flying ICU' now has a longer range and can fly at night and in poor weather.

The 'flying ICU' now has a longer range and can fly at night and in poor weather.

Mr Duncan said most communities are pushing for a helipad with easy hospital access, and Tenterfield is no different. Tenterfield support group's John 'Dodge' Landers confirmed this, saying an all-weather central location would be ideal. Helicopters currently land in Federation Park, with patients transferred to or from the hospital by ambulance.

"We're supportive of that," Mr Duncan said.

"We want the best, consistent facilities we can get. It makes it easier for the crew to do their job."

Lismore Base Hospital had a major helipad upgrade recently but the smaller community of Maclean has also had money committed for a $750,000 helipad at its district hospital to avoid ambulance transfers, so the precedent has been set.

Mr Landers thanked committee members for travelling to Tenterfield for a first-hand look at the facilities and the volunteer support effort.

Mr Roberts is pleased he's on the committee saying it's a wonderful group to be a part of, seeing the support that the service needs and receives. From his hospital perspective it's a great facility to have on hand.

The committee meets several times a year and attempts to hold some of its gatherings in the boundaries of its region. The Tenterfield meeting was the first for the year, and the committee hopes to meet in Coffs Harbour later in 2019. Representatives have been drawn from Casino, Tweed, Lennox Heads and Coffs Harbour as well as Tenterfield.

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