North West Air Ambulance: Update

On Wednesday 25 May, Group member and observer Victor Crawford gave us an update on the work of the North West Air Ambulance charity (NWAA). Victor is an enthusiastic and very committed Volunteer Presenter for NWAA, and his talk was partly based on NWAA’s ‘official’ presentation, and partly on his own research.

From the original concept of an emergency air ambulance service alone, the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) has developed to fulfil three functions:

Victor Crawford

  • Emergency air ambulance.
  • Rapid pre-hospital care: preparing the patient for hospital treatment.
  • Emergency medical treatment. Time is often of the essence in enabling a patient to make a good recovery: as well as talking of the ‘golden hour’ in which to get a person to hospital, people now speak of the ‘diamond 10 minutes’ to provide initial treatment.

This can be achieved by the helicopter bringing a doctor to the patient, rather than waiting for the patient to reach the doctor in a hospital. In the USA, some air ambulance units now carry an air-transportable operating theatre. Each NWAA helicopter now carries a pilot, a paramedic who is also the navigator, and a specialist doctor.

The County Air Ambulance Trust, a separate charity from the regional air ambulances, aims to instal a helipad at every hospital in England, to help provide the fastest possible treatment for emergency patients.

NWAA is one of 18 air ambulance charities in the UK. It is entirely funded by sponsors and charitable giving – like the RNLI, it receives no Government funding. It operates three helicopters, which are leased, with their pilots, from Bond Air Services, at £6m a year. Leasing has substantial advantages over purchasing the helicopters: if a leased helicopter goes unserviceable, the lessor, Bond, provides a replacement straight away, instead of the charity having to wait for its own machine to be repaired; likewise, pilot training and checking is dealt with by the lessor, rather than the charity having to provide its own supervisory staff. One helicopter is based at Barton, and two at Blackpool.

NWAA’s ‘parish’ covers the area from Cheshire to south Lakeland, a region of 5,500 square miles, with eight million people, and terrain and infrastructure ranging from cities and motorways to agricultural land and wild countryside.

The latter bring out the advantages of air ambulances over land vehicles: land ambulances are often unable to get quickly to the scene of an emergency on agricultural land or in the wild, especially in wet weather, when even if there is access they may get bogged down. (Road ambulances are now very heavy, because of all the equipment they carry.) Moreover, even if an emergency scene is nominally accessible by road, when traffic congestion holds up surface vehicles a helicopter can jump the queue, and so achieve the critical aim of helping a patient rapidly.

NWAA flies 2,300 missions a year, and the number is increasing. At present they operate in daylight hours only. About one-third of their calls are to road accidents, and about a quarter of these involve motorcyclists. They will normally fly a patient to the hospital providing the most appropriate specialist care, rather than necessarily the nearest one. Wythenshawe Hospital, for example, is a national centre of excellence for treating burns.

Victor showed us some of the places where NWAA helicopters have landed – on a mini-roundabout, with hazardous street furniture all around, or on a motorway, only after both carriageways have been closed to traffic, to avoid opposite traffic having accidents through drivers looking at the helicopter.

If you dial 999, the ambulance controller will first want to know where you are. If you don’t know, and are using a mobile phone, they will ask permission to locate your mobile. Their objective is to get a land ambulance to you in nine minutes in a severe (‘red’) emergency, or in 20 minutes for a less urgent (‘amber’) situation. For a non-critical (‘green’) situation, they will aim to get a doctor to ring you within 60 minutes. The nine-minute objective for severe emergencies is achieved in 75% of cases.

Altogether, Victor gave us an excellent update on NWAA’s work, and the Group will be making a donation to NWAA as an expression of support and our appreciation.