Tuesday, 19 January 2021


“We’ve dodged a bullet”

By Stephan Bosman

The National Ambulance Sector Office (NASO) announced on Wednesday last week that they are in the final stages of entering into a three year contract for the provision of air ambulance services in the northern parts of New Zealand. The services will be provided by a new joint venture trust between the Auckland Helicopter Trust (ARHT) and the Northland Emergency Services Trust (NEST). It is expected that the contract will come into effect on 1 April next year.

NASO is a business unit within the Ministry of Health and is jointly funded and governed by the New Zealand government and ACC.

Last week’s announcement is significant for the residents and ratepayers of the Coromandel Peninsula as it confirmed that the new joint venture trust will continue to operate from rescue helicopter bases in Whangarei, Auckland and Whitianga. Rescue helicopters and crews will be based “when and where they are most needed.”

The state-of-the-art rescue helicopter base in Whitianga, known as Crosby Field, is owned by the Coromandel Rescue Helicopter Trust (CRHT) and comprises a helicopter hanger, adjacent crew accommodation and well-maintained grounds. The ARHT owns two twin-engine helicopters, one of which is almost permanently based at Crosby Field. The ARHTs crews all live in Auckland, but are regularly rostered to serve four day shifts in Whitianga.  

The area that will be serviced by the new joint venture trust stretches from south of Waikaretu to the top of the North Island and includes the Northland, Waitemata, Auckland and Counties Manukau District Health Board regions, as well as the Coromandel Peninsula. The joint venture trust will also provide support to Starship Hospital’s paediatric intensive care facility.

NASO requested in March this year proposals from interested bidders to provide air ambulance services in three parts of New Zealand - northern (the Northland, Waitemata, Auckland and Counties Manukau District Health Board regions), the rest of the North Island and the South Island. The request for proposals was the first public step in a 10-year programme to modernise New Zealand’s air ambulance services.   

The Coromandel is part of the Waikato District Health Board region and was in the request for proposals included in the rest of the North Island, to be serviced by rescue helicopters operating out of Hamilton and Tauranga. No provision was made for any air ambulance services to be provided from the rescue helicopter base in Whitianga.

The request for proposals was met with outrage by rescue helicopter supporters on the Peninsula and further afield. A public meeting on 5 May was attended by more than 3,500 people and on 24 July, Walter Russell, CRHT chairman, and Brian Bowering, CRHT trustee, presented a petition of 8,500 signatures calling for Crosby Field to remain operating to Parliament.

“We’ve dodged a bullet,” says Walter. “It’s extremely fortunate that a joint venture trust between the ARHT and the NEST were the preferred bidder to provide air ambulance services to the northern parts of New Zealand. No one was under any obligation to operate out of Whitianga in their proposal. If it was another bidder, an overseas-based company, for instance, we may well have been excluded.”

The new joint venture trust will operate four twin-engine helicopters - the two ARHT helicopters and two helicopters that have recently been acquired by the NEST.

Greg Barrow, the CEO of the ARHT, says the NEST was in agreement with them to include the Coromandel Peninsula in the joint proposal they submitted to NASO. “The CRHT and the various communities of the Coromandel are our friends,” he says. “There was no way we were going to abandon them in our negotiations with NASO. Going forward, when and where to base helicopters and crews will be very much a decision in the hands of the new joint venture trust. The existing arrangement to base a helicopter in Whitianga was always on the basis that it could change according to demand. That’s very much the way we expect things to stay.

“In fact, if anything is going to change, it probably will be that some rescue helicopter crews will over time relocate to Whitianga permanently and live within the local community. We’re fully committed to the people of the Peninsula.”

Walter says it has been a very long and tiring six months since it became public that NASO did not include Crosby Field in their request for air ambulance service proposals in March. “The result we’ve achieved wouldn’t have been possible without the pressure of the people of the Coromandel Peninsula and the surrounding areas,” he says. “I would like to thank my fellow CRHT trustees, all our sponsors and supporters, both Scott Simpson [National Party MP for the Coromandel electorate] and Jan Tinetti [Labour Party list MP], and all those who kept on donating to the rescue helicopter during this time.

“I can now sleep at night knowing that the people on the Peninsula will continue to have one of the best rescue services in New Zealand available to them.”

The ARHT fundraising team confirmed on Friday last week that they are now going full steam ahead with organising another Concert in the Vines next year, to be held on Friday 11 January at Mercury Bay Estate in Cooks Beach. Concert in the Vines is every year the biggest rescue helicopter fundraiser on the Coromandel Peninsula.

“The past few months have been tough for everyone involved, but now we can look ahead with confidence and build on the already great relationships we have with all the wonderful Coromandel communities,” says Leanda Hunt, the ARHT events manager.

The Informer is proud to be the main sponsor of next year’s Concert in the Vines.


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