Northern Ireland news

Police helicopters deployed 10 times to airlift patients to hospital

The police operate three helicopters, which can be used to assist the ambulance service in airlifting patients to hospital
John Monaghan

POLICE helicopters were deployed across Northern Ireland 10 times last year to assist the ambulance service airlifting patients to hospital.

Three PSNI helicopters have the ability to deploy a stretcher, and two ambulance service staff are permitted on board.

The police helicopter assisted in airlifts in locations across five counties - with the exception of Fermanagh - throughout 2016, bringing patients to Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry, and to the Royal Victoria and Musgrave Park hospitals in Belfast.

It completed journeys of between five and 25 minutes, with the longest trip involving the transfer of a patient from Portrush to Musgrave Park.

There were also a further seven incidents in which the police responded to a request for assistance, but their services were not required.

On occasions, the coastguard and military aircraft can instead assist in the airlifting of individuals to hospital.

The police said it did not hold a record of the costs involved, in figures released in response to a Freedom of Information request from The Irish News.

Details of how the new Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) would be staffed have not been disclosed to date.

Former Alliance leader David Ford said that the current deployment of the police helicopter raised questions about how a new air ambulance service would look.

He said: "We need to ensure any air ambulance is feasible from the start, with full use made of it.

"In light of these figures, there appears to be no evidence the Department of Health has fully thought this aspect through, in addition to questions still remaining over how the service will be funded."

Andrew McFarlane, from the College of Paramedics in Northern Ireland, said that any new service should include a doctor and paramedic on board.

"The College of Paramedics supports a doctor-paramedic led model for HEMS. That is the model which brings the maximum clinical benefit for patients," he said.

"With the above model, there is a 40 per cent increased chance of survival. Currently paramedics are limited in treatment options for our sickest patients, such as the delivery of anaesthetics or performing surgical procedures."

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill said last year that the annual running costs - estimated at around £2 million - for an air ambulance service would be split evenly between the health service and charity partner Air Ambulance NI.

Mrs O'Neill said in December that pending the completion of a business case, she will make an announcement about the location of a base for the air ambulance service "in the near future".

The minister has said that the annual cost of having a doctor on board would be "in the region of £435,000".

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