People will die if Taupo's rescue helicopter service is withdrawn - it's as simple as that, says Taupo district mayor David Trewavas.

Trewavas was today reeling from news that under the National Ambulance Sector Office's call for air ambulance services proposals, Taupo is not included.

That's despite the Greenlea rescue helicopter - based at Taupo Airport - being called out hundreds of times a year to jobs from medical emergencies to lost trampers and survival situations on the mountains of the central plateau.

It was called out 10 times during the four-day Easter break alone.

Advertisement

The list of regions where air ambulances would be based under the new system, which will come into effect on November 1, did not include Taupo which currently has the Greenlea rescue helicopter based at Taupo Airport.

In the last 12 months the helicopter was tasked with 223 missions from medical emergencies to car crashes.

Taupo district mayor David Trewavas standing about 100m in front of where two vehicles collided head-on on SH1 on October 10 last year.
Taupo district mayor David Trewavas standing about 100m in front of where two vehicles collided head-on on SH1 on October 10 last year.

But given its proximity to the Tongariro National Park and the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, skifields and forest parks, the helicopter also spends a large amount of time searching for and rescuing lost or injured hunters, trampers and skiers.

At least 37 of its missions last year were classified as search and rescue missions, but the actual number is likely to be higher as any rescues involving injured people are classified as accident callouts.

State Highway 1 runs through the middle of the Central Plateau and the helicopter is also regularly called to the mountains, where up to 130,000 people are expected to walk the Tongariro Alpine Crossing this year and where conditions can turn from benign to deadly in an hour.

Over the four-day Easter break alone the helicopter was tasked with 10 missions.

On one, it ferried a St John intensive care paramedic to a fatal car crash on the Desert Rd, where he worked for half an hour trying to save a seriously-injured baby; and the next day it whisked a two-year-old with hypothermia from below the Tongariro Alpine Crossing to safety.

Pilot Pete Masters said without the helicopter, the toddler would have died.

Taupo's rescue helicopter was the first in the country, and came about after pioneering helicopter pilot John Funnell and local emergency services recognised that people in the Central Plateau's isolated back country were not getting the help they needed, with many dying before they could be transported by road to hospital.

Trewavas said the service was set up because the topography and the geography of the Central Plateau meant that help was often slow to arrive.

Although the area might in future be serviced from Hamilton, he said the time difference - it takes at least 55 minutes for a Hamilton helicopter to reach the central plateau mountains as opposed to 20 or less from Taupo - would see lives lost.

"It's as simple as that. It's a life or death situation."

Trewavas has been in touch with Taupo MP Louise Upston and said he would be talking to the Ministers of Health and ACC and doing everything he could to save the service.

"I was just devastated," he said of hearing the news.

David Wickham, secretary of the Philips Search and Rescue Trust, which operates rescue helicopters in Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo, Hamilton and Palmerston North, said the trust was blindsided by Taupo not being included in the request for proposal.

"There was nothing to indicate that there would not be one in Taupo."

Wickham said the trust would be developing an evidence-based proposition for the NASO to consider as an alternative.

"It [the request for proposal] says what they want to buy but not why they want to buy it, they haven't said why on the balance of probabilities it makes sense for Taupo to be responsibly excluded, so that's the question that we're going to ask."

It is also unclear where search and rescue callouts would fall.

"After October 31, if the NASO doesn't change its mind as a result of what comes out of this tender process, there won't be a NASO-contracted rescue helicopter based in Taupo.

"One of the knock-on effects of that is that it may impact on the police's ability to access appropriate Land Search and Rescue helicopters, because unless they make alternative arrangements, they piggyback off what the NASO-contracted helicopter does."

In addition to the distance from other rescue helicopter bases, Wickham said weather conditions often meant helicopters from other areas could not get into the Central Plateau.

The mountains to the east and west were physical barriers that could not be crossed in poor conditions, and the Palmerston North helicopter often could not go further north than Waiouru or Ohakune in poor weather.

A Hamilton helicopter could fly to Taupo using an instrument approach but it might arrive to find conditions meant it could not carry on, he said.

The local Taupo rescue helicopter pilots knew the region intimately and that was of huge benefit on difficult jobs, he added.

"They just know that area like the back of their hand and it does count."

Asked if waiting longer for a rescue helicopter from outside the immediate region could mean life or death for somebody needing help, Wickham said: "Without a doubt."

The Ministry of Health, which operates NASO in conjunction with ACC, was approached for comment but could not respond by deadline.