Air Ambulance Dream Takes Flight.

From being the only province in the UK not to have one, Northern Ireland is set to witness a Helicopter Emergency Service (HEMS) take to the skies to help save lives. The news comes after the well publicised incidents at the North West 200 in 2015 whereby an Air Ambulance was summoned to the coastal circuit to airlift an injured spectator and rider to hospital. Thankfully, both Violet McAfee (spectator) and Stephen Thompson (rider) survived the horrific ordeal. It is believed, a sum in the region of £4 million has been allocated to help get the service up and running. Rodney Connor Trustee of the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance praised the news. “It’s fantastic news for the people of Northern Ireland. We have been stressing for a long-time the importance of this particular service and I’m glad it’s finally being put in place.”

Air Ambulance logo
Northern Ireland Air Ambulance logo.

Northern Ireland is home to approximately 1.8 million people and is the only region in the UK that is not serviced by an Air Ambulance. The latest introduction puts the province in accordance with the rest of the UK.  This latest development is welcomed news to those who have worked tirelessly to foresee that the dream has become a reality. Ian Crowe, a trustee of the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance said: “This has been ongoing for a number of years, I had been contacted by Arlene Foster MLA in 2013 to see if I could scope out the viability of the Air Ambulance service in Northern Ireland. Firstly, I involved the four other trustees’ and together we worked to make happen.”

Ian added, “We gathered information on the topic by visiting some of the other HEMS services and basically learned from them. Obviously we needed government approval so we put together the information we had gathered before presenting it to the then Health Minister Edwin Poots and Arlene Foster MLA who had approached me in the beginning. Both politicians were satisfied by our research and in August 2014 the assembly passed our proposal and we re-ignited the campaign in February 2015.”

The Air Ambulance is set to cost £1.8 million per year to run therefore the trustees’ established the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance Charity in order to help compensate some of the running costs carried by the Air Ambulance. However, Mr. Crowe outlined the Air Ambulance is a necessity in Northern Ireland regardless of the expensive price tag. “It’s crucial now that we have one here in Northern Ireland. We talk about the ‘Golden Hour,’ this is the most crucial moment after a trauma occurs. It’s the time when Paramedics transfer the casualties to trauma centres. Here in Northern Ireland it can take a long time to reach the nearest hospital, for example if a patient has to be taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast from Fermanagh, it can take a bit of time given the infrastructure of the roads in Northern Ireland.”

Ian added, “What the HEMS will do, is it will reduce the timescale from the place of a trauma until the injured party reaches the trauma centre. With the Air Ambulance a casualty can be at a trauma centre in approximately 20 minutes which is a great deal faster than land travel.”

MotoGP rider Eugene Laverty has recently promoted the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance charity during last weekend’s race at Jerez in Spain. Laverty displayed the charity logo on his leathers which helped promote the cause. The Toomebridge man steered his way to finish in ninth place onboard his Aspar Team Ducati during last Sunday’s race in southern Spain .

Rodney Connor another one of the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance Trustees’ has welcomed the news of the HEMS being introduced, Rodney said: “It’s a fantastic facility to have here in Northern Ireland and it’s something we have needed here for a long time. The Air Ambulance has already been a proven success in other parts of the UK and I have no doubt it will be a success in Northern Ireland also.

There has been some debate of where exactly the Air Ambulance should be located creating a difference in opinion amongst the powers that be. Many of the government ministers and trustees’ have indicated that the Air Ambulance should be based at Aldergrove airbase which is located outside Belfast. This would make it an easy place to be tasked from by the Northern Ireland Ambulance service, however Rodney disagrees with this proposal. “I feel the Air Ambulance should be located at St. Angello Airfield in Enniskillen because for me, this Air Ambulance should serve on both sides of the border, almost like a cross border partnership. Enniskillen is the ideal location as it is central to both Belfast and Sligo therefore it is easier for the Air Ambulance to access potential traumas both in the north and south of Ireland.”

One man who was also heavily involved with the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance campaign was the late Dr John Hinds. Dr John was an Anaesthetist at Craigavon Area Hospital but was better known for the medical cover he provided at motorcycling events throughout Ireland and further afield. ‘The flying doctor’ was tragically killed in a freak accident whilst travelling to provide medical assistance to an injured rider during a qualifying session at the Skerries 100 road races in July 2015. This fatality came just weeks after the Newtownards native had come onboard the HEMS campaign and since his death campaigners have been continuously working to achieve what John believed in.

Both Rodney and Ian had worked with Dr John prior to his death and outlined their heart-felt devastation and grief after his untimely death. Ian said, “It was such devastating news, in fact I was actually on holiday in Devon when I received the phone call to inform me of Dr Johns death. I was so shocked. Rodney added, “John’s death was extremely sad but one thing I will say is he put the Air Ambulance campaign on the map and his death brought the ideology to the fore.”

The death of Dr John Hinds impacted the lives of many, whether it is motorbike racers, event organisers or the patients which John provided with his utmost care. He was the type of character everyone could relate to and show gratitude to for his efforts within his work, motorcycling or his avid lust to secure an Air Ambulance for Northern Ireland.

Race photographer and colleague, Stephen Davison, described the impact of Dr John’s death on the motorcycling fraternity. “I was devastated to hear about John’s death. He was a talismanic figure in road racing and it seemed very, very wrong that we had lost the man who provided the care for the rest of us. The small, self-contained world of road racing seemed to have shifted slightly off the axis that it revolves around.”

Stephen also paid tribute to Dr John’s campaign surrounding the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance. “John had got involved with the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance campaign prior to his death. He was fully aware of the HEMS service in London having previously worked with Dr Gareth Davies, who heads up that service, as well as running the AirMed response team on the Isle of Man during the TT and the Manx Grand Prix. John himself was very opposed to unnecessary deaths and the statistics show that, perhaps, as many as 600 lives could have been saved in Northern Ireland since 2003 if an Air Ambulance had have been available. Many viewed the Air Ambulance as a luxury rather than a necessity but John viewed it as a fundamental need and this is why he began to push for its provision.”

One sporting event set to benefit from the introduction of the HEMS is the international North West 200 road races. An Air Ambulance has been utilised at the 8.9 mile street circuit at both the 2014 and 2015 events. The 2016 North West 200 is hoped to earmark the first flight of the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance should its assistance be required. North West 200 Event Director, Mervyn Whyte, has welcomed the reform, “The Air Ambulance is a major bonus in relation to the running of the event, and in particular, dealing with incidents. We as a club, have been stressing for a number of years how an Air Ambulance would help benefit those injured at these types of events. They talk about the ‘Golden Hour,’ and its crucial injured riders or spectators get to trauma centres as quickly as possible.”

Mervyn Whyte also commended the work of Dr John hinds in years gone by at the North West 200, he said. “I worked with Dr John Hinds a lot over the years. He was a caring, patient and hard-working character. Any injured riders knew they were in safe hands when John was dealing with them. Last year at the North West John worked tirelessly to help all involved with the incident on Station Road where both a rider and spectator were injured. Also in 2014 when French rider Frank Petricola had a serious accident at Primrose Dr John’s care and expertise subsequently saved his life.”

In many cases there are instances which can be adapted or changed for the better. In an ideal situation it would have been idyllic for Dr John Hinds to reap the benefits of his efforts alongside those from the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance charity. However, there is no doubt that the Air Ambulance will help save the lives of many throughout the province which is the ultimatum of all involved with the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance campaign.

An insight of what the HEMS could look like
An insight of what the HEMS could look like.

Further Information

The following link provides a brief insight of the exact function of the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service located in London. This service was encountered by Dr John Hinds prior to his death and indicates what the service will provide in Northern Ireland:

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