LifeFlight’s overall mission is to ensure that everyone in Queensland has access to rapid-response critical emergency aeromedical care, 24/7 and at no cost to patients. LifeFlight’s Director of Aeromedical Services David Donaldson commented: “We’re constantly working to ensure we’re providing the best possible service to the people of Queensland and beyond, who rely on us. We want to remain at the forefront of retrieval medicine.”
Over the course of 40 years, the service has continuously evolved and is now considered an essential safety net for Queenslanders, especially those living in rural and remote areas. Fuelled by the desire of current CEO Ashley van de Velde and other dedicated visionaries, the Gold Coast Helicopter Rescue Service was established in 1981. It was later renamed CareFlight, before merging with the Sunshine Coast Helicopter Rescue Service in 2013; this expanded the organisations’ joint history to 1979. The service changed its name to LifeFlight in 2016, but crews have always remained committed to saving lives, no matter what banner they are flying under.
Throughout the last four decades, more than 56,000 patients have been helped, and last year was a record year, with aeromedical crews, community helicopters and air ambulance jets performing more than 6,500 missions in Queensland and around the world.
The RACQ LifeFlight Rescue community helicopter airlifts come at no cost to patients. A service agreement with the Queensland Government, community fundraising, sponsorships and innovative profit-for-purpose social enterprises all contribute to pay for the service; however, RACQ LifeFlight Rescue relies on the community to help make up nearly 30 per cent of funding each year.
The RACQ LifeFlight Rescue helicopters are part of the Emergency Helicopter Network (EHN) and respond to retrieval and rescue missions, tasked by Retrieval Services Queensland, which is managed by Queensland Health. A portion of the air ambulance jet missions are tasked and funded by Queensland Health, but other missions, including international airlifts, are private, with many funded by patients’ insurance.
LifeFlight’s fleet includes rescue helicopters and jets, each fitted with state-of-the-art intensive care medical equipment. There are 10 helicopters, including AW139s based at Brisbane, Toowoomba and Roma, as well as Bell 412s based at the Sunshine Coast and Bundaberg. A BK117 is based in the remote north-west community of Mount Isa and a Eurocopter AS350, which has been retired from aeromedical flights, is usually kept at the Brisbane engineering base. The majority of aircraft are under the RACQ LifeFlight Rescue naming rights contract; however, two AW139s, based in Toowoomba and Roma, operate under a contract with a consortium of gas companies. This is known as the LifeFlight Surat Gas Aeromedical Service (SGAS).
The make-up of the helicopter crews varies for each region, but typically includes a pilot and co-pilot or aircrew officer, as well as a medical team consisting of a mixture of a critical care doctor, a critical care nurse or a critical care paramedic. RACQ LifeFlight Rescue critical care doctors are recruited from around Australia and the world, and are given extensive training to prepare them for pre-hospital care and working with aircraft.
The air ambulance component of the service has been operating for more than 15 years. The jets, based in Brisbane and Townsville, usually carry two pilots as well as a critical care doctor and nurse. Currently, three of LifeFlight’s Challenger 604 jets are on standby to airlift suspected or confirmed coronavirus and other patients from Queensland regional centres, under an upgraded agreement with the State Government.
Aeromedical crews perform a large variety of missions, including airlifting patients from emergencies, transferring sick people to more equipped hospitals, repatriation and search and rescue.
The community helicopters respond to the missions of most interest to the public, which tend to be those where patients have been involved in emergencies. That can include car crashes, farming or machinery accidents and incidents involving animals.
Crews are also called to winch hikers off mountains and out of deep gullies, as well as rescue people from the ocean, and also co-ordinate with police and maritime authorities to assist with search and rescue missions where necessary.
Due to Queensland’s climate and environment, a lot of people choose to spend their free time doing outdoor activities, and RACQ LifeFlight Rescue is always ready to help those who find themselves in trouble. “Having said that,” noted Donaldson, “the majority of our day-to-day missions are inter-facility transfers. This involves moving sick or injured patients to other hospitals, which can offer a higher level of care. Queensland is a far-reaching state with many people living rurally, so it’s often necessary for a patient to need a level of care that is only available in bigger cities, hours away. Every minute saved by flying in a helicopter can often mean the difference between life or death.”
The RACQ LifeFlight Rescue Air Ambulance jet are primarily called on for longer-distance airlifts, often flying from northern areas of Queensland to the south east. The jets have also flown many missions overseas, to bring home sick and injured Australians or take foreign patients back to their home countries.
A significant jet mission was the repatriation of two survivors of the New Zealand volcano tragedy, late last year. An RACQ LifeFlight jet, with two fully equipped intensive care units and medical teams on board, flew to Christchurch and brought two Australian survivors back to Sydney. The retrieval teams consisted of two critical care doctors and two critical care flight nurses, who constantly monitored the patients throughout the journey.
Donaldson recounted some of the tougher missions encountered by crews, noting that with the multitude of variable factors that can arise at primary emergency scenes or when caring for a critical patient in the air, the crews face many different challenges. “Through extensive ongoing training, all crew members are highly skilled and prepared for an extensive range of scenarios,” he added.
From the helicopter side of the service, some of the tougher missions involve winching. “There was a particularly challenging one last year where the Toowoomba-based RACQ LifeFlight Rescue chopper was called to rescue a stranded hiker from a dangerous cliff face. The teenager had fallen to a spot that was so steep, the crew couldn’t safely insert the Queensland Ambulance Service critical care flight paramedic. The chopper crew decided to winch down two vertical rescue trained Queensland Fire and Emergency Service firefighters, who moved the teen to the narrow peak of the mountain. From there, our crew was able to safely winch them all out.” Crews undergo regular live winch training to ensure they are always ready for such high-pressure situations.
Technology and innovation
“Managing and maintaining a varied fleet of aircraft, spread across the state, means we rely on several technological systems,” said Donaldson. “Many of these are based in our operations centre, known as C3, in our Brisbane head office. C3 is staffed 24/7 by experienced aviation operations co-ordinators, who manage asset allocation, landing permits, flight planning, customs and immigration clearance, ground handling, flight tracking, refuelling and rostering.
“We also have our own heavy maintenance facility and employ a team of around 20 engineers. They do everything from basic checks, to complete rebuilds and inspections of the helicopters. An additional 20 engineers work from the aircraft bases, across the state. Together they are regularly finding innovative solutions.”
The LifeFlight Training Academy is another innovative centre, where pilots, aircrew officers and medical teams can undergo continued training. The Academy features a Thales Reality H AW139 Full Level D Flight Simulator, which provides an incredible high-fidelity flying experience, for both LifeFlight’s crews and external clients. A medical simulator for training flight doctors, nurses and paramedics was also introduced last year. It is fitted out as a replica of the cabin of an AW139 helicopter, complete with seats, a stretcher, a communication system and medical gear, to give medical teams life-like experiences, from the safety of the ground.
Partnership is key
David Donaldson said there are two main areas he would accredit LifeFlight’s success – the LifeFlight team itself, and partnerships.
“Firstly, having an integrated team of clinical and aviation specialists enables us to work more closely together, to be a patient-centred service. The two main sides of the service have to smoothly interconnect, to create the best possible patient journey. Our mission to serve the community is very motivating, so each and every LifeFlight staff member is 100-per-cent committed to that, meaning we’re all prepared to work our way through problems together and go that extra mile,” he told AirMed&Rescue.
“Our team also includes a world-class training capability, aircraft maintenance and 24/7 operations centre, so we are able to control and integrate all aspects of our operation, which enhances our availability and responsiveness.
“Secondly, our partnerships play a crucial role in our sustainability and in making us who we are today. We maintain valued partnerships with the community, supporters and corporate sponsors, who all help us sustain our operations. Our relationship with the Queensland Government is equally vital, as they are both our partners in delivering our service and our principal tasking and funding organization. We think of ourselves as a trusted partner with them, rather than just a service provider. So, whenever issues arise, we are able to collaborate with them to achieve the best outcome for the aeromedical network as a whole.”
LifeFlight is also proud of its more than 25-year partnership with its naming rights sponsor, the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland (RACQ).
The next decade will no doubt see LifeFlight continue to grow and strengthen the service it provides.
“In terms of aviation, we’ll be continuing our fleet modernisation, which has been a big factor in enhancing our availability to the community and making sure we’re setup for a sustainable future,” Donaldson said. “On the clinical front, we’ll be looking at how we can further integrate those services with our aviation services. Overall, LifeFlight will continue to focus on our mission and provide the best possible aeromedical service to our community, with an emphasis on always being available and able to respond with the right people, the right skills, and the right equipment for every patient situation.”