RAC Rescue Helicopter is the sole rescue helicopter service in Western Australia (WA), providing 24/7 emergency services across the state since 2003. The service is funded by the WA state government, alongside Australia’s Royal Automobile Club (RAC) as the principal sponsor, and run by the state’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).
RAC Rescue maintain a wide range of ties to a broad number of other organizations across WA and Australia as a whole, which Shehan said ‘are critical to providing emergency services across WA and delivering a high quality, coordinated, all-hazards rescue response’.
“DFES actively engages and maintains relationships with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, WA Police Force and Department of Health to support rescue helicopter operations and training requirements,” he explained.
He added that RAC Rescue also regularly operates alongside and conducts training with other DFES-affiliated operational services, including Marine Rescue, the State Emergency Service, DFES Special Operations, and both professional and volunteer fire and rescue services.
RAC Rescue staff are also drawn from several organizations, with pilots, aircrew and engineers contracted through CHC Helicopters Australia. Meanwhile, the service employs St John’s Ambulance for the provision of its critical care paramedics (CCP) and rescue crewmen onboard aircraft. St John’s Ambulance also coordinates aircraft dispatch and emergency calls for RAC Rescue through its State Operations Centre in Perth.
Operating a set of three Bell 412 helicopters
The organization operates a fleet of three Bell 412EP twin-engine helicopters, flying from two bases across the state. Powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney PT6T-3DF turbine engines, the 412 has a cruising speed of 122 knots and an operational range of 125 miles (200km) from the primary rescue helicopter base.
These aircraft are spread across RAC Rescue’s two bases, with one helicopter and a backup aircraft stationed at Jandakot Airport in the Perth metropolitan area, while the third aircraft is stationed at Bunbury Airport in WA’s southwest.
According to Shehan, the two primary aircraft are maintained on ‘effectively 24/7 standby’ and can be airborne within 15 minutes after being tasked with a mission. Meanwhile, the backup helicopter ‘provides DFES and the state with flexibility to mobilise the aircraft to support additional emergency incident operations’.
“This was exemplified in 2021 during recovery efforts for Cyclone Seroja in WA’s mid-west region, and the Carnarvon floods, where RAC Rescue conducted 67 rescues and emergency transports during its week-long deployment, with 35 of those occurring on the first day,” he added.
“After nearly 20 years of service to the Western Australian community, RAC Rescue is extremely well developed and operates like a well-oiled machine,” Shehan said. “RAC Rescue operates at a 95-per-cent online status, meaning the helicopters and crews are almost always available to deliver their service to those who need it.”
RAC Rescue covers only five per cent of WA’s landmass – but 90 per cent of its population
As Australia’s largest state, covering over 2.5 million km2, WA poses unique and significant challenges for RAC. Shehan explained: “The distance between capital city Perth and the northernmost point of WA is equivalent to the distance between London and Istanbul or Moscow. In total, WA comprises one third of Australia’s total territory and 28 per cent of Australia’s coastline.”
Furthermore, much of the state’s territory is sparsely populated, with the majority of its population of around 2,591,600 people settled in the southwest. Despite this concentration of people, the state still has an overall population density of one person per square kilometre.
Shehan explained that unlike more populous Australian states, most of WA’s territory is not served by emergency helicopter services: “Apart from South Australia, every other state in Australia is protected by aeromedical services at a rate of between 65 to 100 per cent [of its landmass].
“By stark comparison, only five per cent of WA is covered by aeromedical services like RAC Rescue. Fortunately, RAC Rescue covers about 90 per cent of WA’s population, as three-quarters of the population live in the Perth metropolitan area.”
To manage what Shehan describes as ‘the specialty of the types of missions flown by RAC Rescue and the unique and often challenging characteristics of the Western Australian landscape', DFES offers a range of training opportunities for RAC Rescue team members, including:
- Land and maritime search and rescue for people, vessels, and aircraft
- Night Vision and Forward-Looking InfraRed camera flight operations
- Instrument flight rules with austere day/night landings
- Advanced medical/trauma center placements for critical care paramedics.
Familiar operations in spite of unique geography
Despite the unique geographical challenges, many of the missions carried out by RAC Rescue Helicopter remain familiar to aeromedical and search and rescue operators worldwide.
“The primary scope of RAC Rescue is delivering land and maritime search and rescue operations with all-hazards aeromedical rescue direct to incident scenes across Western Australia,” said Shehan. “Other approved mission tasking includes inter-hospital patient transport from regional hospitals, and the transport of DFES, WA Police Force, and other emergency services personnel to incidents.
“If required, RAC Rescue can transport an injured person direct from an incident scene to the appropriate medical facility, including rooftop helipads at one of Perth’s three trauma centre hospitals, resulting in lifesaving outcomes, and better recoveries for those rescued,” he added.
RAC Rescue categorizes emergencies into four distinct mission types – search and rescue (SAR); Primary; Secondary; and DFES tasking. In any given month:
70 per cent of taskings are for Primary missions – which typically receive 15-minute response times and comprise Priority 1 trauma incidents, aeromedical evacuations and patients requiring on-site RAC Rescue capabilities – of which around 73 per cent are for road crash/motor vehicle trauma incidents
10 per cent of RAC Rescue missions are for SAR and mostly coastal over-water operations and Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons/Emergency Locator Transmitter activations – includes missing persons, vessels and aircraft, vertical winch retrieval and/or advanced aeromedical treatment on behalf of the WA Police and the Australian Maritime Safety Authority, for which dispatch is typically within 15 minutes
17 per cent are Secondary missions – including time-critical adult, child, and neonatal patient transfers from regional medical facilities to one of Perth’s three metropolitan tertiary hospitals.
RAC Rescue also carries out periodic tasking on behalf of the DFES – including, but not limited to the transport of emergency services personnel, medical evacuation, and operations to support DFES incident management.
Ultimately, Shehan said, the primary mission of the services remains the same, 'to save lives and support all-hazards emergency operations by rapidly deploying and inserting the rescue capabilities of the aircraft and personnel directly to an incident scene'.
Covid forced RAC Rescue to adapt, but it did not reduce demand
Like many other air rescue operations, RAC Rescue was forced to adapt its operations to ensure continuity of services following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.
“We implemented numerous contingency plans to respond to potential Covid exposure,” said Shehan. “We enhanced our decontamination and disinfection protocols for both crew and aircraft to respond to new state and [federal] health mandates.”
However, despite the need to adapt operations to meet the needs of the crisis, Shehan said that demand from the public did not falter. “The pandemic did not impact mission operational tempo. The frequency of RAC Rescue callouts generally remained consistent throughout the pandemic,” he said.
While demand did not fall, the service found that the kind of incidents they were being called out to changed, as government Covid measures were rolled out: “We observed an increase in callouts to local, house-related incidents, and a slight decrease in motor vehicle incidents – presumably because people were spending more time at home due to lockdowns,” Shehan explained.
Other trends which the service observed included increased incidents related to rural and outdoor pursuits, such as quad-biking, off-road motorcycling, and horse-riding.
‘The future is looking bright for RAC Rescue’
After 19 years of service, during which RAC Rescue has expanded to offer 24-hour all-year coverage within a 125-mile (200km) operational range of Perth, it has become a mature, well-developed provider. Having successfully navigated the turbulence of the pandemic years, the service now has plans to expand further.
“The future is looking bright for RAC Rescue,” said Shehan. “On 15 December 2021, the WA government announced a commitment of A$50 million to deliver three next-generation emergency helicopters for WA.”
The new fleet will operate in the same configuration as the old one, with one primary aircraft at each base and a third serving as a backup. However, the upgrade will expand RAC Rescue’s operational range to a 217-mile (350km) radius – a 75-per-cent increase on the previous figure. The contract also contains additional options for further fleet orders and services, ‘pending further state government funding and approval’.
DFES is also exploring the potential to source new medical equipment for the service, offering up-to-date resources for emergency patients. “In consultation with the WA Health, we are currently looking to procure new handheld ultrasounds, new video laryngoscopes, and blood warmers,” said Shehan. “With the procurement of DFES’s replacement helicopter fleet, additional opportunities will arise for the procurement of advanced medical equipment for rescue aeromedical operations.”
The plans represent part of an ongoing expansion by RAC in recent years, which saw the opening of its second base at Bunbury Airport in February 2016, as well as the expansion of coverage to include the entire South West and parts of the Great Southern regions.
Since the service’s foundation in 2003, the demand for emergency air rescue has risen substantially, with RAC Rescue striving hard to accommodate the increase. Demand peaked in the year 2019–2020, just before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when the provider recorded its highest ever annual mission figures: 816 missions, equating to 2,022 mission hours and 112,968 miles (181,804km) flown. In total, RAC Rescue helicopters have flown close to 9,000 missions since its establishment.