Anger fuels fight to keep rescue chopper

Paramedics flew in to attend to a spear fisherman who got into difficulties at Storm Bay at Kiama on Tuesday. Picture: DAVID HALL
Paramedics flew in to attend to a spear fisherman who got into difficulties at Storm Bay at Kiama on Tuesday. Picture: DAVID HALL

Anger is brewing over plans to axe the Illawarra's only aeromedical helicopter, with community leaders vowing to fight tooth and nail to keep the service in the region.

An independent review by Ernst & Young says the government could save millions of dollars each year by moving the Albion Park-based helicopter to Sydney and cutting helicopters at other bases, without "significantly affecting" response times to patients.

But South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris declared the community that fought so hard for a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week service in Wollongong would not take the news lying down.

"If the state government really wants a fight on its hands involving the entire community then this is the best way to get one," Mr Rorris said yesterday.

"The campaign was actually fought by a range of groups in our community from unions to the business community, to Lions clubs and surf lifesaving clubs to name but a few.

"There is no more important service than that designed to save lives and we don't intend on giving this up."

Surf Life Saving South Coast president Steve Jones said it would take a "brave government" to remove the chopper from the region.

"This aircraft placed in the Illawarra has done a magnificent job, manned by professional medical staff," Mr Jones said yesterday.

"My concern is these reports are done by accountants and risk assessors but from my 40 years' experience in emergency management, professionally and as a volunteer, a timely response is of paramount importance.

"To remove any chopper, medical or rescue, out of the region is a bad decision by any government."

Keira MP Ryan Park said axing the service would be a "diabolical decision for the government".

"In a region that has a coastline, escarpment, a population that swells in the summer months on top of an industrial area - it is absolutely essential to have this type of medical service," Mr Park said.

Mr Rorris said the service had saved "hundreds of lives" since the region was "finally given a 24/7 chopper with doctors on board" in 2008.

"That's hundreds of families who may not have their loved ones now with them if this lunatic obsession by the bean counters in Sydney had their way last time," he said.

"But we know this story because it's our community that fought hard to get this service in our region. We have never looked back and we don't intend to now."

The Ernst & Young report found there was sufficient activity from the Wollongong base to justify keeping the helicopter at its base - with 471 missions.

However, moving the chopper to the Sydney base "resulted in 88 hours less flying time across the service".

The report used "simulation modelling" to understand the effects of having the helicopter continue to operate at its base or to move to Sydney.

"As a result of relocating the Wollongong helicopter to Sydney, there does not appear to be a degradation time in primary response time for the majority of patients that would have been retrieved by the helicopter from Wollongong," it found.

The response time for the Wollongong helicopter from base to patient was 49.9 minutes. The Wollongong chopper sent from Sydney was 46.9 minutes under the modelling.

"These recommendations illustrate the big problem with bean counters," Mr Rorris said.

"They can count money and they can count time but they seem to be blind to counting lives.

"They told us there would be only about 50 mission a year - there are more than 450 so there you go, that tells you something about the credibility of the bean counters who tried to stop the service last time.

"They were wrong then and they are wrong now."

A NSW Health spokeswoman said the report had been sent to about 150 stakeholders for comment, including the Ambulance Service of NSW, clinicians, a critical care taskforce, hospitals, unions and MPs.

The government will release its response to the review once the formal submission period closes in February.


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