The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter and paramedics tend to the victim of a serious car crash on the Pacific Highway north of Maclean in September.
The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter and paramedics tend to the victim of a serious car crash on the Pacific Highway north of Maclean in September. File

Delays hit rescue chopper

PARAMEDICS are calling on their employer to overhaul the staffing situation at the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter and to stop "playing Russian roulette" with patients' lives.

The call comes five years after a senior deputy state coroner recommended the Lismore helibase be staffed 24 hours after it was delayed in responding to a fatal logging accident in Woodburn.

Graham Edward Newton died from injuries sustained when a tree fell on him in November 2001. He suffered a cardiac arrest in the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter, which arrived 40 minutes after the accident.

In delivering her findings in 2007, Senior Deputy State Coroner Jacqueline Milledge recommended the NSW Ambulance Service establish a 24-hour shift for a paramedic crew at the heli-base and to give dispatch autonomy to the Ambulance Northern Operations Centre.

In 2008, the NSW Ambulance Service implemented a six-month trial of rostering one paramedic at the helibase between 8am-6pm.

However, that was phased out.

Five years on from the coronial recommendations and the helicopter still requires approval from the Aeromedical Retrieval Unit in Sydney and the life-saving aircraft is always ready to go but is still forced to wait for paramedics to be called in to the helibase.

The intensive care paramedics who work on the helicopter are sourced from Lismore Ambulance Station only and are often pulled from their road ambulance shift to respond to a helicopter mission.

Paramedics have told The Northern Star this leads to lengthy delays in a critical time period known as the Golden Hour - the targeted time period to get a patient with traumatic injuries to a hospital for their best chance of survival.

The Northern Star spoke to current and former flight paramedics who all believe the capabilities of the crucial helicopter, partly funded by the NSW Ambulance Service, are being hindered by the current staffing arrangement.

They say the Northern Rivers is being "ripped off" compared to metropolitan areas, like Sydney, where paramedics are a permanent fixture at helibases.

"The community pumps $1 million into the aircraft and the weakest link is the actual ambulance service," one paramedic said.

"We would have the weakest staffing arrangement in NSW for the amount of work we do and the population we serve.

"The coroner's case pinpointed that it did contribute to the demise of Mr Newton."

Another paramedic recommended rostering paramedics permanently at the helibase or having the helicopter meet paramedics on scene, to save a delay in dispatch time.

A NSW Ambulance spokesman said the use of paramedics from stations other than Lismorepresented a significant "service delivery problem".

"Should the aircraft be re-tasked en route the aircraft has no clinical crew," she said

"Furthermore the smaller town paramedics are key resources that are required to attend cases within the town and their use on the helicopter would risk longer emergency responses to those towns.

"Ambulance has never restored permanent staffing for the Lismore helicopter.

"Any time where staff capacity has allowed, an officer has been placed at the helicopter base but this is not a permanent capacity."

 

Delayed Incidents

November 11 2011 - Helicopter delayed 47 minutes to double fatal car crash at Chatsworth after it had to wait for a paramedic.

November 25 2011 - Paramedics forced to overload their ambulance van at crash at Tabbimoble after three requests for helicopter were denied.

February 10 2012 - After waiting 20 minutes for a paramedic and none being available, the helicopter was forced to take off with only a doctor to a crash involving a milk tanker and a bus at Glen Innes.



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