The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter flight operations team, pictured at the Lismore helibase in 2015. Plans to move the base to Lismore airport have been slammed by the Australian Paramedics Association.
The Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter flight operations team, pictured at the Lismore helibase in 2015. Plans to move the base to Lismore airport have been slammed by the Australian Paramedics Association. Marc Stapelberg

‘Anywhere but Lismore’: Helibase move to airport slated

THE threat of fog and flooding make Lismore airport a risky location for the new Westpac Life Saver Rescue helibase, according to a local delegate from the Australian Paramedics Association.

The new helibase is set to open in early 2017, with construction expected to start next month.

But delegate Ryan Salter said an opportunity was missed to reassess Lismore's suitability for the base, adding frontline Westpac helicopter staff were not consulted over the Lismore airport decision.

Local foggy conditions common to the Lismore basin could ground the helicopter service and in some cases halt life-saving interventions for critically-injured patients, Mr Salter said, while other locations, like Ballina, were generally fog-free.

"The issue of fog is fairly unique to Lismore just because of the geography of the basin there," he said.

Mr Salter said research showed mortalities from traumatic head injuries were reduced by up to 50% if they reached neurosurgery in less than four hours, so rapid response times were critical.

He said there were several cases where early morning fog had hampered critical operations, including the airlift of Evans Head surfer Craig Ison who was critically attacked by a shark in August.

"The medical team had to respond to that by car because they were unable to fly because of fog," Mr Salter said.

He said the best place for the new helibase was "anywhere but Lismore".

But general manager of the Westpac helicopter service, Kris Beavis, dismissed the claim, citing the service's record of 96% availability since 2009.

The Lismore location had proven capable of delivering an "appropriate chain of clinical care" and was "right at the top of the tree" in terms of reliability, he said.

"Weather does impact on all operators from time to time and all mission locations ... (it) is a fact of life, (yet) despite that background we still service our community incredibly well," he said.

A spokesman for NSW Ambulance said "extensive stakeholder consultation" was carried out in a 2012 review which recommended the base be maintained in Lismore.

"No objections were received during the consultation process regarding concerns about the potential impact of fog ... or a need to move the helicopter base away from Lismore," the spokesman said.

"At the current Lismore helicopter base, a mission is unable to be undertaken due to poor weather conditions approximately twice per month. This frequency is consistent across all NSW Ambulance helicopter bases across the state."

WHY A NEW HELIBASE?

> In 2012 the NSW Government commissioned a review into funding for aeromedical services traditionally provided by the Westpac Life Saver Rescue Helicopter.

> One of the review's recommendations was to replace the current Eurocopter Dauphins with a fleet of larger Augusta Westland helicopters by mid-2017.

> As a result, the Northern Region Westpac helicopter service based in Lismore would need a new helibase to accommodate the larger aircraft.

> After the local service won the NSW Government tender to continue its provision of aeromedical retrieval services in 2014, it commenced planning for the new helibase.

> Lismore airport was identified as a suitable location. Questions have been directed to the NSW Ambulance Service over the decision-making process for the site, which did not respond by deadline.



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