Saturday 20 July 2019

Air ambulance is finally given the green light to take to the sky

After months of waiting, North Cork-based service set to go live 'within weeks'

The Augusta Westland AW109 ‘Air Ambulance’ ready for take off at its Rathcoole base in North Cork
The Augusta Westland AW109 ‘Air Ambulance’ ready for take off at its Rathcoole base in North Cork

Bill Browne

"The sooner this vital service is live, the sooner a life will be saved and grief will be saved." Those were the heartfelt words of Irish Community Rapid Response (ICRR) director John Kearney after it emerged that a service contract has been signed that will allow Ireland's first community air ambulance to finally take to the sky.

Last September it was announced to much fanfare that the service would commence operation from its base at Rathcoole Aerodrome, near Millstreet. 

However, despite a €400,000 investment in the base situated between Millstreet and Banteer and the fact that a fully trained medics and back up staff have been at the ready since the start of the year to launch what will be Ireland's first privately funded air ambulance service, the leased Augusta Westland AW109 helicopter still sits idle in its hangar. 

In addition to the €40,000 investment in the base, ICRR has so far spent more than €50,000 on paramedic training, with its team of pilots having to regularly travel to the UK maintain their flying hours while the helicopter remains grounded. Last Friday Health Minister Simon Harris confirmed that a service level agreement had finally been signed between the HSE and ICRR and that the new and potentially life-saving service would be launched "in the coming weeks". 

Welcoming the development, Mr Kearney urged the Department of Health to set a definitive date for the service to 'go live', saying that for its part the ICCR was "fully ready to commence" operations. 

"I warmly welcome that this project finally has approval to get airborne. The sooner this vital service is live, the sooner a life will be spared and grief will be spared," said Mr Kearney. 

It is anticipated that once operational, the Air Ambulance will respond to up to 500 calls per year and provide critical medical care to people within a 10,000sq mile radius of its North Cork base. 

Examples of incidents it will respond to include airlifting seriously ill patients from remote and rural areas, those with serious trauma injuries and those suffering from cardiac events and strokes to hospitals. 

The Air Ambulance  will be capable of reaching Dingle within 24-minutes of take-off and Rosslare within 33-minutes and will also be equipped with long-range fuel tanks that will allow it to co-ordinate with the existing Athlone-based Emergency Aeromedical Service for missions across the country if and when required. 

The HSE/ National Ambulance Service (NAS) is providing the medical staffing for the aeronautical service, which will be tasked centrally through the existing NAS 999/112 call system. Mr Kearney said that now the service, which the ICRR has spent years raising money to fund, is set to go airborne the next challenge will be to keep it operational.

"ICRR is a charity and in the contract we have committed to fundraising €2m annually to pay for the helicopter, the pilots, the Rathcoole airbase and fuel. That is why this is called a 'community' Air Ambulance," he said. 

"I would like to thank the public who have generously supported this project and to keep it in the air we will be reliant  on the public's long-term support - and I am confident that this can be achieved," he added.