Paramedic delays disrupt rescue helicopter flights

THE Hunter Westpac rescue helicopter is being delayed responding to emergencies because the NSW Ambulance Service is unable to get paramedics to the Broadmeadow base on time.

The Newcastle Herald is aware of numerous incidents in the past few months where the region’s rescue helicopter has been forced to wait up to 29 minutes, almost double the recommended daily response time, for medical teams to arrive.

In some instances, helicopters from Sydney or Wollongong have been sent to do Hunter jobs or patients have been transported by road.

Expected helicopter response times for primary missions, or emergencies, are 15 minutes during the day and 30 minutes at night.

News of the delays comes on the back of numerous reports in the Herald in the past few months detailing blowouts in ambulance response times across the region.

Paramedics stuck, sometimes for hours, waiting to off-load patients at overcrowded Hunter hospital emergency departments, known as access block, and lack of staff are being blamed.

The Hunter Westpac rescue helicopter operates with two helicopter-trained intensive care paramedics, supplied from Cardiff and Hamilton ambulance stations, for emergencies, and a doctor and nurse for hospital transfers.

There were four occasions in April where the helicopter was delayed responding to emergencies because it had to wait for paramedics.

Jobs included transporting an injured motorcycle rider, 26 minutes; motor vehicle accident, 17 minutes; winch rescue, 28 minutes; and assisting an injured surfer, 16 minutes.

On May 9 the helicopter was called to a shooting and was not in the air for 29 minutes.

On each occasion the reason given for the delay was ‘‘waiting on medical team’’.

Paramedics told the Herald a helicopter from Wollongong had to respond to a man crushed under a horse at Central Mangrove in May because no Hunter medical team was available.

Last month, patients from a Nords Wharf car accident had to be transported by road because helicopter-trained paramedics were not available. This was despite urgent requests for the helicopter by the paramedic on the scene.

A NSW Ambulance spokesman said instances of delays getting paramedics to the helicopter base were ‘‘rare’’.

‘‘If local intensive care paramedic crews are committed to treating other emergency patients, Aeoromedical Retrieval Service will task another appropriate resource [helicopter],’’ he said.

The spokesman confirmed there were only 28 helicopter-trained intensive care paramedics working from Cardiff and Hamilton ambulance stations, two short of the agreed workforce.

He said training would be conducted this month to increase the number to 30.

Health Service Union ambulance sub-branch president Peter Rumball said that on 70 occasions in the past six months there was one helicopter-trained paramedic rostered on shift at Cardiff, leaving only the Hamilton crew to respond.

‘‘Intensive care paramedics have reported on numerous occasions that the rescue helicopter has been delayed because the only available crew working was on a road case or tied up in access block,’’ Mr Rumball said.

‘‘Critically ill patients have had to be road transported when they should have been medivacced from the scene.’’

Helicopter general manager Richard Jones said anything that delayed the service was a concern.

Acting NSW Health Minister Kevin Humphries said health director-general Mary Foley was investigating ways to improve access block and would brief Health Minister Jillian Skinner.

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