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Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service Saving Lives

Australia’s Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service in northern New South Wales (NSW) saw a change last year in the nature of accidents.

“We initially saw a decline in the number of accidents. There were fewer car accidents and fewer recreational holiday accidents,” says Westpac Rescue Helicopters Service CEO Richard Jones.

He says after the initial decline, the number of accidents returned to the earlier levels, but there was a change in the nature of accidents.

“We saw more domestic household accidents as well as farm accidents, as people in country towns and surrounding rural areas were confined to their homes,” says Jones, referring to the stay-at-home orders in parts of New South Wales, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service is best known for its sea rescues, but more of its flights are inland and involve transferring people to hospitals for emergency medical treatment. Northern New South Wales’ three major hospitals are in Tamworth, Lismore and Newcastle, where the helicopter service is headquartered.

It operates a fleet of four Pratt & Whitney Canada-powered Leonardo AW139 helicopters.

New South Wales is a large state – 801,000 square kilometers, larger than France, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands combined. The vast distances within the state mean it is impractical to use road transportation to get critical care patients to major hospitals.

“Ninety-five percent of the population of NSW lives within one-hour flight time of a major trauma center [hospital]. Some of the small towns may only have two ambulances, so if you take one of those to drive two hours to a major hospital and two hours back, then it diminishes [emergency] services tremendously.”

Jones says the benefit of helicopters, such as the AW139 powered by Pratt & Whitney’s PT6C, is that they have the flexibility to land on farms, roadsides and other places inaccessible to fixed-wing aircraft.

Each Westpac rescue helicopter is staffed by a critical care paramedic from the NSW Ambulance and a doctor from NSW Health. Equipment on board includes vital signs monitors, defibrillators, airways management system, surgical kits and other critical gear.

Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service was established in 1975 as a weekend beach patrol and through community support and fundraising it became a critical service that operates from four bases in Belmont (Newcastle), Broadmeadow (Newcastle), Tamworth and Lismore. Today it delivers aeromedical search, rescue and inter-hospital transfers to care for communities from north of the Hawkesbury River, up to the Queensland border. Along with the pilot and aircrew officer, every primary response mission leaves with a dedicated NSW Ambulance paramedic, NSW Health doctor and, depending on the needs of each patient, the team may include specialist nursing professionals. The Service is jointly funded by the NSW government, corporate partnerships and community support.

View the video showing a rescue performed by the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service off the coast of NSW. The rescue is from the viewpoint of the two spear fishermen who were lost at sea after losing their boat.