What is Air Ambulance NI?
Air Ambulance NI is the charity that fundraises for and manages the helicopter operations of Northern Ireland’s Helicopter Emergency Medical Service. It works in partnership with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and the health trusts which provide the medical teams on board its helicopter. It is a doctor-led service so its value is in getting hospital ER-level treatment to trauma casualties on site in minutes, as well as slashing the travel time for the transfer of casualties to hospital. From its primary operating base at Maze Long Kesh it can reach any part of Northern Ireland in twenty-five minutes.
2006: Fermanagh District Council commissioned Peter Quinn to prepare a Business Plan for the development of a Helicopter Emergency Medical Service, or HEMS for short, to serve Northern Ireland and the border counties. The Council then presented this Plan to the then Department of Health, but feedback indicated that it was too early yet to be able to support such as service.
2013: After separate and unsuccessful attempts to establish a HEMS, the AANI organisation started to take shape after many meetings between Peter Quinn, campaigner Rodney Connor and DETI Minister Arlene Foster. As Ian Crowe, Ray Foran and Gerard O’Hare were recruited to join the Trustees Board, AANI was able to strengthen its existing research into the viability of the service.
2014: In May 2014 AANI convened an “Air Ambulance Summit” at St Angelo Airport, Enniskillen (still the base for one AANI’s helicopters today). It was attended by key health sector influencers including the Health Minister, the heads of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service and the Health Commissioner and other leading public representatives who came to champion statutory support for the service.
2015: By September 2015, Air Ambulance NI had registered as a company limited by guarantee and as a charity with Charity Commission NI. In the same month, in the wake of the tragic motorcycling death of popular HEMS campaigner Dr John Hinds, the HEMS4NI campaign submitted a petition to Stormont with 84,500 signatures in support for the service.
At this time, following detailed research and consultation, the trustees submitted an application to Chancellor George Osborne for substantial seed funding sourced from fines levied on banks for LIBOR market-rigging.
2016: Although not approved on its first submission, Treasury Officials suggested how the proposal might be adapted. Following a second submission, the Chancellor confirmed on 16 March 2016 the approval of a substantial grant to AANI that was subject to match funding, giving trustees the confidence needed to progress their plans for the Air Ambulance service.
With start-up funding secured, the trustees engaged with Department of Health officials on the procurement of a three-year contract for the supply and operation of a helicopter. To comply with European procurement rules, the Trustees spent more than three months researching and compiling a complex tender that would be advertised across Europe. The process concluded with the award being made to Babcock Mission Critical Services, a world leader in the supply of HEMS aircraft.
The search for a base for the service had also begun, which included assessments of four airports, a privately operated site, and Maze Long Kesh. These detailed assessments took three months and their evaluation resulted in a joint decision with the DOH, DHSSB, NIAS AANI that AANI to develop an operational base at Maze Long Kesh. It was an ideal location linking to road networks, access to skilled medical personnel and unrestricted flying capabilities; included a Helicopter hangar; an operational base for Doctors and paramedics; and the addition of office facilities which would come to accommodate the charity’s full time staff.
Air Ambulance NI signed its Memorandum of Understanding with the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service in November 2016, which outlined how the HEMS service would be delivered. With the service now a certainty, the trustees felt it appropriate to start accepting the charity donations being offered to support the continued development of the Air Ambulance service. From the very first donation of £200, the Charity has been overwhelmed with the support from the general public, community groups, sports clubs and businesses.
There followed a period of consultation and debate amongst health service stakeholders about what roles would be fulfilled on the service by doctors and paramedics. One vision, that supported by the late Doctor John Hinds, was for a Doctor-led service.
2017: In March 2017 it was this Doctor and Paramedic service which got the green light from the Health Minister.
The Trustees continued to manage the support offered by fundraisers by facilitating and attending multiple charity events. Detailed preparations for operations were well underway and included the development of the Maze Long Kesh base; procurement of the specialist medical equipment needed; managing the contract with aircraft services provider Babcock MCS; facilitating the flight training of the medical staff; and appointing three full-time staff to run the charity – committed now to raising the £2m a year needed to run the service.
On 22 July 2017 during a period of final preparation and familiarisation, the Air Ambulance NI crew were tasked with attending to and transporting to hospital the eleven-year-old victim of an agricultural accident. This was the first ever live deployment of the new service and thankfully the patient is on their way to recovery.