New Zealand’s First Response Mechanisms
Jonathan Falconer reviews search and rescue and helicopter emergency medical services provision in the Pacific island nation
Situated in the south-western Pacific Ocean, the island country of New Zealand – or Aotearoa, to use its native Māori name – comprises two main land masses: the North and South Islands, of which the North Island is the most populous.
As island dwellers, New Zealanders are in the fortunate position of not sharing borders with any other country; the edge of the sea is their only boundary. It’s a nation of widely varying landscapes and weather – from the fjord coast of the southwest and Southern Alps that form the spine of the South Island, to the subtropical paradise in the northern extremities of the North Island. These topographical and climatic characteristics, combined with 9,300 miles of coastline, can make New Zealand a challenging environment for SAR and HEMS operators.
Caroline Blanchfield of Christchurch-based GCH Aviation, a provider of air ambulance and helicopter rescue services, illustrated some scenarios: “The South Island has the Southern Alps running up the middle, but our crews are fully trained to operate in all kinds of environments, from high alpine to marine. On the South Island, the distance from the mountains to the sea is small geographically, so our crews can be in the peaks on one mission, followed by a marine rescue on the same day,” she observed.
“Our operating environment in the South Island ranges from coastal, to rolling hills and into the Southern Alps, topping out at 12,220ft,” said Kevin Gale, Commercial Operations Manager at Helicopters Otago. “Temperatures range from below minus 10 in the winter to plus 30 in the summer. We operate single-pilot PBN-IFR (Performance Based Navigation-Instrument Flight Rules) and VFR-NVG (Visual Flight Rules-Night Vision Goggles),” he continued.
“New Zealand weather can be changeable, so our pilots and crew are trained extensively in all operating environments for their own safety and that of the patients,” remarked Blanchfield. “GCH Aviation operates on a no-commercial-pressure policy for safety. If the pilot or crew do not think it is safe to fly, there is absolutely no company imperative for them to do so,” she asserted.
The area for which New Zealand has search and rescue responsibility is one of the largest in the world, spanning more than 30,000,000km2. It extends from Tokelau down to Antarctica, halfway to Australia and halfway to Chile, and incorporates several Pacific Islands including Niue and Tonga.
New Zealand’s air ambulance services rely on contracts with three key helicopter providers
New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) Joint Forces Air Component Commander Air Commodore, Shaun Sexton, explained that the SAR sector in New Zealand is made up of two coordinating authorities and a range of other organisations which have trained SAR personnel and equipment to assist people in distress.
He added: “There are more than 20 organisations in the SAR sector in New Zealand – these are a mix of government, commercial and voluntary groups.
They include NZ Police, the NZDF, Coastguard New Zealand, Land Search and Rescue New Zealand (LandSAR), Surf Life Saving New Zealand, Amateur Radio Emergency Communications, rescue helicopters, commercial helicopter companies, and Antarctica NZ. New Zealand is unique in that 91 per cent of the people involved in SAR are volunteers – one of the highest rates of volunteer SAR involvement in the world.”
Responsibility for the operational coordination of SAR operations rests with one or the other of the two coordinating authorities, Police or Rescue Coordination Centre New Zealand (RCCNZ). They work closely where necessary, regarding activities of the many organisations in the SAR sector that provide people, aircraft, vessels and other forms of support in response to a SAR event.
New Zealand’s operating model for SAR services relies on several key providers who, through individual helicopter operators, contribute many of the specialist rescue services across the country. The NZDF, Police and Coastguard provide some support, but this is mostly of a specialist nature when needed.
The NZDF maintains fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters and ships on call 24/7, 365 days of the year. “We also have the capacity to help conduct land search and rescue missions, if requested, with response groups in the North and South Islands,” said Sexton.
The Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) assets used on SAR operations include fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Crew on RNZAF P-3K2 long-range maritime patrol aircraft and C-130 Hercules aircraft conduct searches, and can deploy survival packs and life rafts as part of a rescue operation. The RNZAF medium utility NH90 helicopters also deploy on SAR operations. The NH90s can handle difficult weather conditions which smaller civilian helicopters might not be able to, and also have winching capabilities for lowering searchers and equipment to the ground and for winching people to safety.
The first of the RNZAF’s new fleet of P-8A Poseidon aircraft, to replace the P-3K2 Orions, will be introduced into service in 2023. Sexton said: “Crew roles on the P-3K2 are: two pilots, two flight engineers, three Air Warfare Officers (one Tactical Coordinator, one Information Manager and one Sensor Manager), four Air Warfare specialists and one Air Ordnance Specialist. SAR equipment includes two deployable life-rafts, Minimum Aid Airborne Delivery Devices, Marine location Markers. On the NH90, crew roles include pilots and loadmasters.”
Royal New Zealand Navy SH-2G Seasprite helicopters (and RNZN ships) may also be used for search and rescue responses.
“SAR searches operated by agencies like the Police and Coastguard are allocated and coordinated, depending on whether or not an emergency locator beacon was activated,” said Adam Walker from RCCNZ. “With what are termed Category One searches, the Police can lead SAR operations that include land and close-to-shore marine searches. Category Two is for missing aircraft, and offshore marine searches and those for emergency locator beacons that have been activated, which are handed across to us at RCCNZ to coordinate – assets are then directed in response,” he explained.
Helicopters Otago on the South Island are often tasked with SAR operations. “These are mostly dispatched by the RCCNZ for land-based and offshore operations and the NZ Police for any river or coastal operations,” commented Gale.
HEMS in New Zealand
New Zealand’s HEMS provision is free at the point of use and built around a matrix of charitable trusts and commercial operators, with public fundraising topping up the government’s baseline emergency ambulance funding for medical and injured patients. “Large corporate businesses and banks are major naming-right sponsors with smaller corporates,” said Blanchfield.
“Family trusts form the second-tier sponsors, followed by small donors from the general public,” she added.
In similar fashion to the SAR arrangement, New Zealand’s air ambulance services rely on contracts with three key helicopter providers – Northern Rescue Helicopter, Central Air Ambulance and Helicopter Emergency Medical Services – who contribute many of the specialist services through individual helicopter operators throughout the country.
GCH’s Blanchfield described how its agreement works: “Our emergency/rescue helicopter services are contracted through Helicopter Emergency Medical Services New Zealand (HEMS NZ) – a 50/50 partnership between GCH Aviation and Helicopters Otago, with further support from Southern Lakes Helicopters,” she said.
Helicopters Otago’s Gale explained in more detail how the HEMS system in New Zealand is organized: “New Zealand is divided into three regions for aeromedical – the upper North Island, central North Island and South Island. Operations on the North Island are covered by charitable trusts, while the South Island is covered by HEMS NZ, which holds the South Island contract. It then subcontracts the services of two privately owned companies – GCH Aviation with bases in Christchurch, Nelson and Greymouth; and Helicopters Otago, which covers the rest of the South Island, with bases in Mosgiel and Queenstown,” he explained. “In the south-west of the South Island is another privately owned company, Southern Lakes Helicopters, based in Te Anau, which subcontracts to Heli Otago on an ‘as available/required basis’, for mostly SAR and primary operations in the Fiordland/Southern Lakes region of the South Island,” he said.
Private operators work closely with the charitable trusts
Commercial and charitable collaboration
Private operators work closely with the charitable trusts – for example, Northern Rescue Helicopter collaborates with Northland Emergency Services Trust on the North Island, while on the South Island, GCH Aviation engages with Canterbury West Coast Air Rescue Trust for Canterbury and the West Coast; Nelson/Marlborough Air Rescue Trust for the top of South Island; and the NZ Flying Doctors Trust for the fixed-wing Flying Doctors.
Assets and equipment
“GCH operates two helicopters in Christchurch,” said Blanchfield. “One H145 that’s fully Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and a BK117 that operates 10 hours a day, seven days a week. At Greymouth, the largest town in the West Coast region of the South Island, the company flies one BK117 that is operational 24/7, and at Nelson/Marlborough we have a single BK117, also operational 24/7,” she related.
Flight crews consist of a pilot, crew person/paramedic and an intensive care paramedic, and most aircraft are fitted with winch capabilities for SAR or over-water missions. “Equipment depends on the mission, but we have real-time medical diagnostic equipment that sends information directly to the hospital for correct triage on arrival,” said Blanchfield. “It costs approximately NZ$25,000 to equip a crew person with additional equipment such as immersion suits or mountain rescue equipment,” she explained.
Helicopters Otago has a fleet of eight helicopters that are all fitted out for EMS, as Gale outlined: “We have one each of Airbus H145 D2 and D3, and an EC145, plus five MBB/Kawasaki BK117 B2s. We have recently purchased another H145 D3 and a BK117 C2 that will join the fleet once delivered,” he confirmed.
Most of the company’s operations are flown single-pilot, both VFR and IFR, while primary operations are carried out with one pilot and two paramedics, ranging in skillsets from paramedic to RSI-capable CCP paramedics. “Inter-hospital transfer crews consist of one pilot, one paramedic, a doctor and an ICU nurse,” said Gale. “The three 145s, and two of the BKs, are single-pilot IFR-capable, and two of the other BKs are two-pilot IFR. We carry Corpuls defibs, Hamilton ventilators, syringe drivers, a CPR device and other standard resuscitation equipment.”
NZ Flying Doctor Service
“Negotiated contracts for NZ Flying Doctor Service (NZFDS) sit with the District Health Boards currently, but the NZ government bought a single entity online on 1 July 2022, as future contracts for provision of the NZFDS will be with Te Whatu Ora/Health New Zealand,” said Blanchfield.
“NZ has changed how it delivers healthcare across the country,” she said. “Larger hospitals are becoming centers of excellence in major cities, so the NZFDS is busier than ever, flying patients to hospitals for specialist services.”
Fixed-wing NZFDS Beechcraft Super King Air 200C, King Air C90B and the smaller Cessna 441 Conquest air ambulances operate from Christchurch Airport and Nelson Airport, transporting patients from regional centres to advanced medical facilities throughout New Zealand, including the Chatham Islands.
“Our medical teams consist of St John’s intensive care paramedics, in addition to paramedics and crew employed directly by GCH Aviation. These crew are crucial to the successful outcome of rescue missions,” commented Blanchfield.
GCH also operates AeroMed NZ, a private jet medical transfer service, using the Challenger 604 for international medial repatriations from around the Pacific. “The service draws on the expertise of NZFDS, with a full-spectrum medical kit able to be fitted, and intensive care medics looking after the patient onboard,” said Blanchfield.
Air ambulance and patient transfers by fixed-wing aircraft are also undertaken by Phillips Search and Rescue Trust, Skyline Aviation, Life Flight Trust, Garden City Helicopters and Stewart IsIand Flights.
Who foots the bill?
With international patient retrieval and repatriation flights, costs are usually covered by medical insurance, but for domestic air ambulance services, funding is shared between the NZ Ministry of Health, Accident Compensation (ACC) and District Health Boards. The balance is covered through fundraising by 15 rescue trusts.