Significant changes are afoot as to how rescue helicopter and air ambulance services will be purchased by the New Zealand Government, throughout New Zealand.
This change process culminated in the issuance by the National Ambulance Sector Office (NASO) of a Request For Proposal (RFP), being a formal step in the normal Government purchasing process.
This RFP sets out NASO’s purchasing requirements for all of New Zealand.
Philips Search and Rescue Trust (PSRT) currently operates rescue helicopters and air ambulance services from bases in Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo and Palmerston North.
There are a number of other rescue helicopter operators based in Northland, Auckland, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Wellington and Taranaki.
The RFP requires the current seven North Island providers to be distilled down to only two regions – Area 1: Auckland/Northland and Area 2: the rest of the North Island.
Within this Area 2 the RFP proposes that the locations for helicopters bases are to be Hamilton, Tauranga, Gisborne, Hawkes Bay, Wellington, Palmerston North and New Plymouth.
Excluded from this requirement are the current helicopters that are based in Whitianga (for the summer), Rotorua and Taupo.
In addition to specifying where helicopters should be located, the RFP also makes considerable changes in relation to the scope and scale of the service to be provided by rescue helicopter operators under this proposed new NASO Contract.
There will be a shift from the current mixture of twin and single engine helicopters to solely twin-engine aircraft and also a significant ramping up in the requirements of crewing, particularly in the area of Paramedics and Doctors.
The scope of the service will also expand to include the providers taking on the contractual responsibility of not only providing Pre Hospital Emergency Paramedics but also Doctors and Nurses for Rotary Wing Inter Hospital Transfer missions carried out within the region covered by the RFP.
Generally, this increase in service that the RFP is purchasing is fully supported by all rescue helicopter operators throughout New Zealand, PSRT being one of them.
The Sector has been awaiting these Government initiatives for quite some time and the RFP Proposal does contain a number of excellent proposed service enhancements and quality improvements.
With regards to helicopter base location, there are considerable fixed costs associated with the establishment of a rescue helicopter base in terms of machinery, flight personnel and medical personnel.
Given the geography of the Central North Island and our experience of the patient pickup point of the pre-hospital emergency missions, we are of a view that discontinuing both Rotorua and Taupo, will see a significant degradation in the public’s access to pre-hospital emergency helicopter care.
This would be so specifically in the region south of Lake Taupo where there is a very active and large recreational area frequented by many people. Often challenging climatic conditions can change extremely quickly.
Given the step up in the quality and scale of the services as proposed by the RFP, we can understand the rationalisation of the current three helicopters within the Bay of Plenty i.e. Tauranga, Rotorua and Taupo down to two, being Tauranga (as proposed in the RFP) and in our view, Taupo.
We think that an improved service located from Tauranga and Taupo ought to be able to cover the responsibilities currently carried out by the Rotorua service, in an appropriate way.
Helicopters, by virtue of their flight capability, can get to remote places extremely quickly and if you draw an arc around the area of a helicopter based in Tauranga and Taupo, they virtually entirely overlap the area covered by the current Rotorua service.
PSRT is working closely with other Rescue Helicopter Trusts within Area 2, to develop a collegial response to the RFP, that response will include a proposal to re-include Taupo.
The timeline for submitting a response to the RFP is extremely short, the 7th May 2018 at 12 noon, and it is intended that the new upgraded services will be in place and operating from the 1st November 2018, when the current NASO contracted services expire.
Currently, approximately 50% of the costs of operating rescue helicopter services is met from non-Government sources – the community. Funding is made up of sponsorship and donations from individual members of the public, corporate donors and charitable organisations.
The Government intends that community funding be retained beyond the 1stNovember 2018. Therefore all Rescue Helicopter Trusts operating throughout New Zealand will need to have the continued support of the communities that they serve, to raise the funds to meet the gap between what the Government will fund and what the cost of this new improved service will be.