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June 2018 Issue
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Future of Te Anau rescue helicopter service in doubt

The future of the Te Anau rescue helicopter is up in the air. Lakes District Air Rescue Trust

Search and rescue helicopter services in Taupo and Rotorua have been saved from the chopping block, but the fate of the service in Te Anau is still in jeopardy.

Proposed changes to regulations governing rescue helicopter and air ambulance services initially cut bases in Taupo, Rotorua and Te Anau.

The North Island services have since been reinstated in the proposal after a local campaign, but Te Anau would still not be funded under the changes. Under the new regime, Fiordland would instead be served by Queenstown-based helicopters.

The Lakes District Air Rescue Trust fundraises for the current Te Anau and Queenstown services and its chair, Jules Tappe, said the move could cost lives.

“I’ve been a pilot for 57 years and I’m absolutely stunned,” he said.

Tappe said weather conditions meant Fiordland was sometimes inaccessible from Queenstown.

“We had a case a couple of weeks ago where there was a front coming through and a helicopter wouldn’t have been able to come from Queenstown, but the Te Anau machine was able to fly up Lake Te Anau and rescue someone off MacKinnon Pass [on the Milford Track] who was suffering from hypothermia. She could have died, but local knowledge and experience meant there was a positive result.”

Federated Mountain Clubs president Peter Wilson said he was “deeply disturbed” by the plan.

“They think they are saving money, but it will cost lives,” Wilson said. 

However, LandSAR group support manager Mike Ambrose said the Rescue Coordination Centre NZ (RCCNZ) initiated helicopters for SAR operations and he believed that helicopters would still be able to operate in Te Anau for PLB responses. RCCNZ would not comment on how the changes would affect its services.

The Ministry of Health and ACC, which is leading the changes, would also not be interviewed or answer questions on the fate of the Te Anau service. However, in a written statement, Ministry of Health community and ambulance manager Andrew Inder said the changes would lead to a more modern service that would be more reliable. 

“The new system aims to get an appropriate air ambulance helicopter service to the scene in a faster or similar timeframe than currently occurs with better care for the patient,” Inder said. 

A decision is expected to be made by August.

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