Queensland Government Air helicopter emergency medical service operations

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Provider profile: Queensland Government Air

Queensland Government Air, based in Australia, gives a whole new meaning to versatility with the numerous and varied mission types it undertakes on a day-to-day basis. Troy Alder, one of QGAir’s helicopter pilots with Rescue 510 based in Cairns, spoke to Christian Northwood

Queensland Government Air is the aviation division within the Public Safety Business Agency of the Queensland Government, says Alder. It’s been through a few name changes over the years, such as EMQ and Queensland Rescue, however the rotary-wing side has been operating continuously in Queensland for over 30 years. This section of the service fields a fleet of three AW139 and two Bell 412EP helicopters from its bases in Brisbane, Townsville and Cairns.

Personally, with two young boys, I find EMS missions involving children the worst
Troy Alder, Pilot for Queensland Government Air

Alder explains why the service favours these models: “QGAir have been operating the Bell 412 for many years. At the time, the aircraft was state-of-the-art with an electronic flight instrument system cockpit and a flight management system. QGAir were one of the first operators of the AW139 in Australia … I believe the choice was made to acquire the latest technologically advanced platform on the market to achieve all the missions the Queensland Government require of us.”

Alder revealed that this drive to have the most appropriate aircraft on the market will see it replace its last two Bell 412EPs with two more AW139s, ‘not only for fleet commonality but to ensure we are operating the latest generation EMS/SAR aircraft’. “The AW139 is considered the benchmark for EMS operations in Australia with NSW and Ambulance Victoria selecting the 139 as their platform across both states,” adds Alder.

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QGAir also operates a fixed-wing service, including one B1900 plane, a B350, a Hawker 850XP, one Cessna Citation jet and a number of Cessna Caravans operating from bases all over Queensland, said Alder.

Versatility is one of QGAir’s strongest assets. The operator’s helicopters are equipped for several mission types, including SAR, EMS, police k9, specialist police ops and swift water rescue. The fixed-wing side of the operation also has several responsibilities, including police surveillance and prisoner transport. The service is able to operate VRF, IFR and on NVGs, notes Alder.

The variety of mission types means that QGAir has to have a fast, but effective, procedure when it receives a call. Alder explains the process: “The emergency call will come through on the ‘bat phone’ and the crew will assemble in the operations room for a mission briefing. Once accepted, the crew will separate and commence their individual readiness processes. The pilot submits a flight plan and updates the weights and balance load sheet whilst the aircrewman and rescue crewman prep the cabin, re-configure if necessary, tow the aircraft out and top up the fuel if necessary. During this time, the intensive care flight paramedic will grab the bloods and the emergency doctor will try and get a medical update from the clinical co-ordinator, though often we may be first on scene.”

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Before the aircraft takes flight, safety and equipment checks are also performed. “Usually we are airborne within 15 minutes. However, this may vary according to flight and mission planning requirements,” Alder says. 

The AW139 is considered the benchmark for EMS operations in Australia with NSW and Ambulance Victoria selecting the 139 as their platform across both states
Troy Alder, Pilot for QGAir

QGAir operates a crew of five members for its SAR and HEMs operations. This includes a pilot, an aircrewman, a rescue crewman, an intensive care flight paramedic and an emergency doctor. The rescue crewman also has additional training as a rescue swimmer, meaning that he or she will have a wealth of skills on top of the winching, underwater escape training, crew resource management, dangerous goods awareness and other responsibilities and training that are expected. The rescue swimmer has to pass a rigorous fitness assessment every four months including a 2.4-km (1.5-mile) run in under 10 minutes and a 1.5-km (0.9-mile) swim in under 30 minutes (the last 500 m wearing fins), an oceanic responder course, cliff-edge fall restraint training, specialist water-based rescue training and a pre-hospital trauma life support course, explains Alder.

QGAir’s staff ‘comprises a really good mixture of ex-military and civilian personnel’, though almost all have prior EMS experience before joining the company.

Over its years of service, QGAir has been involved in numerous missions, including assisting with the 2011 Grantham Floods and the 2013 Bundaberg Floods. The floods in 2011 saw over 200,000 people affected, with many having to be evacuated by the service. Then known as Emergency Management Queensland (EMQ), the service worked together with Surf Life Saving Queensland to establish rescue co-ordination centres in Brisbane. 

aerial view of Cairns, North Queensland, Australia
Aerial view of Cairns, North Queensland, Australia, where QGAir has helicopter bases.

For Alder, there are a few missions that stick out: “Personally, with two young boys, I find EMS missions involving children the worst. Motor vehicle accidents involving alcohol or drugs impacting innocent families and so unnecessarily taking away the life of a child always pull at the heart strings, but that is part of what we do as rescue crews.” One such mission involved Alder and his crew being tasked with the rescue of a family of seven who failed to return from a weekend trail bike ride in the forebodingly named Death Valley, which is situated about 30 minutes from Cairns. The family managed to get an emergency call out to say they were lost before losing contact. Rescue 510 was tasked with finding the family late in the evening. “As with most overland SARs, we configured for a winch and launched on NVGs, initially landing in the town where the party of seven originally left from to speak with the police co-ordinator and to family in an effort to try and minimise the search area,” Alder explains. The chopper crew was able to utilise its thermal imaging camera and NVGs to spot a small fire on a steep slope in a valley. This turned out to be where the group had taken refuge. But the lack of moonlight, combined with the steepness of the terrain meant that the crew decided it would be better to return at first light. “We returned at first light and safely winched all seven in two iterations back to their home town and awaiting families. We dropped our paramedic into the township before the winch evolutions, and so they were given a quick medical check as we brought them in. There were no injuries, [they were] just tired and thirsty.” Alder explains why the mission was so special for him: “The families were so thankful and have since kept in contact with us. It makes our job even more special knowing we rescued seven, including kids, and delivered them to their awaiting families in a small country town.”

Versatility is one of QGAir’s strongest assets

For Alder, what really makes QGAir is the people. He explains the company has ‘an amazing mix of talented, dedicated, experienced personnel who strive to perform their individual roles to the highest standard to achieve one common goal – saving lives’. △