For more than two decades, RACQ CQ Rescue has been assisting those in dire need; whether it be the search for a man missing in the remote bush, retrieving an injured fisherman from a trawler 100 km offshore or transferring a premature baby to life-saving specialist care.
The Mackay, Queensland, Australia-based community-funded rescue helicopter is an integral part of emergency services across the geographically vast Central and North Queensland regions in Australia.
We’ve come a long way, from operating out of a demountable building that flooded when it rained, to a multi-faceted and dynamic not-for-profit organisation boasting two Bell 412 EP aircraft with advanced avionics and an operating budget of AUS $10.5 million.
The first mission
On 27 August 1996, while training was in progress, Dr Bert Sadlier was helping fit out the not-yet-commissioned helicopter and deciding with colleagues where the stretcher should go in CQ RESQ’s Bell Longranger when the emergency call came in. A guest on Hayman Island was critically unwell with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and needed to be airlifted to hospital. Time was of the essence. Her life depended upon it. Bert remembers quickly bolting the stretcher into the helicopter and jumping aboard, still in his civilian clothes, to fly to the rescue. Such effort and her subsequent rapid transfer to hospital and immediate surgery saved her life.
A fledgling service takes flight
During the first four months, from the inception of CQ RESQ flight operations until 31 December 1996, the service flew a total of 43 active service missions, excluding training and promotional flights. On average, during the first four months, an active service mission was flown every three days. The total distance flown was about 10,300 km, which represented an average distance of 240 km per mission. On about 85 per cent of missions, CQ Rescue flew directly to the scene of the incident, which was its core role and represented a dramatic improvement in on-scene capability in the Mackay region. Most of the remaining missions were for patients whose condition required urgent transfer from Dysart, Proserpine and Moranbah regional hospitals to Mackay Base Hospital for further investigation and treatment.
During 2019, the CQ Rescue Bell 412 helicopter recorded 689 tasks, from babies to the elderly, for injuries sustained from accidents, illnesses such as cardiac conditions, strokes, envenomations from jellyfish and snakes, and severe respiratory conditions. These are just a few of the reasons our crew donned flight suits and accepted missions, often not knowing what awaited them at the other end of their journey. To October 2020 during the unprecedented year where Covid-19 has substantially impacted aeromedical services and task numbers, we have completed more than 470 missions.
As a community helicopter provider, RACQ CQ Rescue is available to all residents, workers and visitors (including large tourist numbers) in regions between Townsville and Rockhampton. In real terms, our area of operation is greater than four times the size of Ireland, Switzerland and the US state of West Virginia, and we are on call to help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Unlike other aeromedical operations in metropolitan parts of Australia, our population is diverse, and our geography is incredibly challenging. Our area includes 200 km offshore to the very edge of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as agricultural and mining areas up to 350 km inland, north and south.
While the service comes at no cost to our Australian patients, operational costs to ensure the rescue helicopter and its professional crew are available when needed are estimated to be AUS$10.5 million per annum in 2020. About $5 million of this is raised through corporate support and fundraising, with about 50 per cent contributed by the Queensland State Government. Our sponsors including naming rights partner RACQ (Royal Automobile Club of Queensland) as well as seven Platinum Sponsors ($100,000 per annum) and 12 major sponsors ($50,000 per annum), as well as four in-kind supporters.
The Mackay, Whitsunday and Isaac regions are a hub for mining, tourism and agricultural activity, port operations and rural and remote living. From islands to the outback, mines to ports, rainforests to beaches, mountains to highways, the landscape of the region is widespread and diverse, and CQ Rescue plays a critical role in supporting the lifestyles and livelihoods of the people
CQ Rescue plays a critical role in supporting the lifestyles and livelihoods of the people
who spend time within it. Knowing that the region has a dedicated helicopter medical and SAR service capable of meeting community demand is a critical factor in supporting the development of the local economy, the local lifestyle and the engagement of visitors to the Region.
A team of highly skilled aircraft engineers and rescue aircrew supports CQ Rescue aircraft operations. Russell James is the Base Manager and one of the crew incorporating five pilots who, with four air crewmen, three rescue crewmen, a small team of doctors funded by Queensland Health, and a rotational team of Critical Care paramedics from the Queensland Ambulance service, are the region’s lifeline, and available to be in the air within 15 minutes of receiving a call for help.
The critical nature of the tasks in very remote and geographically challenging locations that CQ Rescue responds to has made it essential to ensure that onboard flight crew have the highest levels of skills and qualifications. From January 2018, a registrar or specialist medical doctor qualified in emergency medicine are carried onboard all flights. Other flight crew include highly experienced pilots, critical care paramedics, air crew personnel and rescue personnel.
The ability to deliver such highly qualified medical professionals to critical care incidents in rural and remote areas provides a whole new level of care and reassurance. Essentially, CQ Rescue is a mobile emergency department.
Essentially, CQ Rescue is a mobile emergency department.
Without access to this level of medical care, these patients would have to travel vast distances before having access to this level of treatment, increasing the likelihood of negative outcomes on their short- and long-term health and survival. CQ Rescue delivers high-level professional care directly to the scene of the incident, resulting in immediate, high quality, critical intervention.
Missions and patients
The primary areas of tasking for our rescue helicopter are within the boundaries of Mackay, Isaac and Whitsunday Reginal Councils. Missions to Townsville also increased significantly in 2020, (each costing more than $35,000). Areas within Whitsunday Regional Council’s footprint are the most frequented destinations for the RACQ CQ Rescue helicopter and up until 2019, missions to Townsville increased from about 33 in 2018 to 46 in 2019. SEE SNAPSHOT OF 2019
Each mission requires the crew to land at the hospital in Townsville and then continue on to Townsville Airport for refuelling before commencing the flight home to Mackay. During 2019, 34 patients on board the RACQ CQ Rescue helicopter were airlifted due to injuries sustained in motor vehicle accidents; 103 due to cardiac conditions, 46 for respiratory conditions, 31 for cranial injuries, 160 for medical conditions and two for shark attacks.
Some missions which have taken our crew out of their regular operational zone have been as far away as Rockhampton (400 km from base), Emerald (380 km), and north to Mareeba (770 km from base). Our crew has also assisted in natural disaster recovery efforts in Brisbane (1,000 km away).
Collaborative working 2019 was another record-breaking year for RACQ CQ Rescue. On October 19 we reached our 9,000th milestone mission, during the biggest and busiest year in our 24-year history. Clocking up 689 missions in just 12 months, an increase of 53 missions since the previous record year in 2018, absolutely proves just how vital the role of RACQ CQ Rescue is within our region. As many of our testimonials state, many people would not be alive today or their lives would be significantly different without the vital and lifesaving services of this worldclass rescue helicopter service in Central and North Queensland. CQ Rescue provides rapid response aeromedical care whenever, wherever,
to whoever calls for help across this vast region. Our service and capacity to serve this community has grown exponentially in our short history, from completing just 92 tasks in our full year of operation in 1997 to nearly 700 missions in 2019. In the face of an ever-increasing workload, it is an enormous responsibility to maintain such high standards of professionalism and to continue to provide the best aeromedical emergency service to residents, workers and visitors in the Mackay, Whitsunday, Isaac and Bowen Basin communities. I’m pleased to say we’ve surpassed many expectations and potential challenges, so our region can proudly claim to be serviced by one, if not the State’s busiest single-base rescue helicopters, boasting no less than 98 per cent availability. 2019 was certainly a challenging year for CQ Rescue. Our diverse and talented team, including our administration staff, board members, crew, medical team, engineers and volunteers, have worked incredibly hard to ensure we continue to evolve and advance the delivery of the most cost effective, reliable, safe and clinically excellent patient rescue and transfer service this community demands and deserves. Inevitably, this also involved a period of transition and fundamental changes to our organization and how we will operate in the future. Not only has there been the ever-increasing workload tackled by our dedicated and hard-working team on board the rescue helicopter, but the incredibly impressive $3.2 million extension project at the Mike Jones Street hangar was completed in December.
Having been successful in our grant application to the Building Better Regions Fund earlier in the year, the CQ Rescue hangar has been extended to cater for additional crew facilities, doubling the number of bedrooms from five to 10, with shared ensuite facilities. The office space has been expanded over two levels, enabling our fundraising and administration staff to co-exist with the operational crew under the same roof, and a mezzanine floor added in the hangar for additional storage, fitness area and virtual reality training resources. The project began in May and was driven by Fergus Builders and Bold Architecture. October saw the project being finalized with the connection of services such as electricity and plumbing, as well as the fit out of offices, bedrooms, kitchenettes, office spaces and storage facilities. It was an enormous job moving our fundraising and administration arms, as well as drug and alcohol testing services, into the new and improved premises and advancing our ongoing collaboration with the Babcock crew and engineers, all onsite and under the one roof.
Our focus, moving into the decade, is on future-proofing our organization
Our focus, moving into the decade, is on future-proofing our organization with strategies developed to expand our current service capacity, deliver improved response times, improved training facilities and greater access to healthcare for those in dire medical need. With the predicted growth in the mining, agricultural and tourism industries, all of which are reliant on timely aeromedical response due to their geographic isolation, combined with increasingly poor health scores across the region’s population, the future dictates an even greater increase in the necessity for and reliance on our communityfunded aeromedical service. Our ability to serve and save lives is a direct result of the phenomenal support we receive from our sponsors and the community. We extend our heartfelt thanks to every individual or organization who has organized or attended fundraising events, donated, sponsored, contributed with weekly payroll deductions, or volunteered their time and expertise. Their ongoing support is testament to the pride and commitment our community has in our lifesaving service and is absolutely critical to ensuring we can keep this lifesaving service ‘flying to the rescue’ of hundreds of people in this region every year. The support again of a grateful community during the 2020 Covid-affected year is absolutely fundamental to our ability to save lives. Without it, we literally couldn’t get off the ground. Year after year, with every life we help save, RACQ CQ Rescue is proving its incredible worth to this region. It’s your lifeline when you really do need it most.