Ambulance - The First Captain's Log
1st April, 2012 will mark the 25th Anniversary
of Cornwall's First Air Ambulance. No doubt many events are
being planned to officially mark the date of the introduction of the
service, however, I'm pre-empting the party by suggesting that the
celebrations should begin this autumn and the name heading the guest
list should be Geoff Newman. Never heard of Him? Read
THIS IS THE BACK STORY OF HOW IT ALL BEGAN.
someone had to have the spark that ignited the idea which evolved into
the genesis of an air ambulance service across the UK. It wasn't an
NHS manager, an Ambulance Service officer or the Cornwall Air Ambulance
Trust; it was our good friend, Geoff Newman. He was the man with the
vision to think differently and yet he isn't mentioned or given credit
on any website that I've Googled from Wiki, the Air Ambulance Association
and even that of the Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust.
Geoff was an ex-naval helicopter pilot, working as an Aviation Consultant
for a consortium of western oil companies. In 1986, he had been working
to support a bid for a contract with the Chinese Government to supply
a Search And Rescue Helicopter Service for the Chinese coastline. It
was at this time that he began researching the ways in which public helicopter
services could work as an Air Ambulance. He knew of the successful German
model, established in 1973 which by 1986, had around 20 helicopters serving
the German public and questioned, why, as an advanced and aviation oriented
country with Navy and RAF SAR helicopter services, were we not doing
It was one of those, "I was there when" moments when
we first heard about his radical idea. One Sunday afternoon in late summer
of 1986, we met up with Lesley and Geoff at Gillan, near Manaccan
and went for walk down to the cove and let the kids and dogs work off
steam while we sat on the wall having a chat. Geoff was pre-occupied
and said that if he told us something would we promise to keep quiet
about it; he confided his thoughts and where his research had taken him.
No one would have guessed that within six months of a conversation between
friends, we would see the first Air Ambulance flying across our skies!
Geoff's initial thought was for an Air Ambulance to be funded by the
NHS, but this wasn't realistic in the long term with the unpredictable
and enormous costs of the venture threatening allocated budgets. However,
ambulances carry patients and the NHS would provide an on-going supply!
There were complex issues of funding and command and control, plus a
helicopter wouldn't go amiss. For funding, Geoff looked at the way the
RNLI was supported entirely by public donation, also possible commercial
sponsorship. Command and control would have to be entirely with the ambulance
service, and as for the helicopter: Geoff called Stephen Bond, head of
Bond Helicopters and explained his ideas. Stephen Bond listened. In response
he didn't say, " The NHS will never agree, go away ", but he
asked the pivotal question , "What do you need to make the most
of this opportunity?". Geoff gambled on his reply, " I want
one of your MBB105 helicopters fitted out for an ambulance role, free
of charge for three months". Bond probably spluttered but agreed
and without doubt, it was his belief, commitment and business sense that
eventually led to a nationwide network of air ambulances.
Cornwall was geographically perfect for the blueprint to be tested.
I recall writing press releases at the time of the launch about call
out and response times for emergency vehicles with communications being
critical in the summer months when the roads are choked with holiday
traffic and there is a 50% increase in population. Targets for response
times couldn't be compared to the rest of the country until the First
Air Ambulance added a new dimension to Cornwall's health care service.
In Geoff's words, "People think it's speed over distance, but in
fact, it's speed over a problem. The helicopter has been able to relieve
pressure on ground ambulances".
Geoff was the only pilot for the early months of the service and the
first patient he air-lifted was a student with a severe spinal injury
from the beach at Porthcurno. She had jumped off the rocks and fallen
badly. A perfect example of where the helicopter provided exceptional
service to the patient and the Ambulance Service. Without, she would
have been carried on a stretcher for half a mile across the sands and
then have to endure a 40 minute trip by ambulance through twisting lanes.
Instead, 15 minutes to Treliske and a much safer ride.
From an uncertain start, with one helicopter flying a five day week
in Cornwall, there are now 30 helicopters in service, used by 18 Air
Ambulance charities. Today, on average, an emergency air ambulance takes
off every ten minutes somewhere across the UK, flying 365 days a year
in daylight hours, attending accidents and medical trauma. Whenever I
hear the beating pulse of rotor blades ahead of sighting the familiar
red and yellow helicopter circling for a place to land, I'm reassured
to know that when emergency medical care is needed, help is at hand.
We all sleep more easily knowing that a highly trained team of paramedics
can be dropped close by to take care of us - none of us know when it
might be our turn...and there is still no official funding!
Cornwall had the first dedicated Helicopter Emergency
Medical Service (HEMS) to be operational in the UK. The initial funding
provided by the local health authority was withdrawn in October of that
year and shortly afterward the charity, then known as the First Air Ambulance
Service Trust was formed. The service is financed by public fundraising
and donations. In 1987, it cost £250K to provide the service for a year.
In 2011, the cost of keeping the service flying is expected to be around
£30K a week, or looking at it another way, around a million and half
pounds every year. Missions flown to date - over 22,000! The machine
can be airborne in two minutes of a 999 call and can cover the entire
county in less than 20 minutes.
Time forgets names and faces and we
take our emergency services as a given, however, it wasn't until I spoke
to Geoff that it struck me how dangerous every mission is for the crew.
Once ambulance control receives the 999 call, the logistics of each operation
are singular. There is always a level of risk and as skilled as the pilot
will be, he is required to manoeuvre the helicopter in unfamiliar terrain
to allow the paramedics to carry out their role and without knowing precisely
what to expect until they land. On this 25th Anniversary we should be
reminded of Geoff's pioneering role as we owe him our thanks- had he
not been living in Cornwall in 1986, perhaps another county would be
claiming credit for the title, 'First Air Ambulance".
Cornwall Air Ambulance
Air Ambulance Association
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