John Tobin served with St John for 50-plus years. Yesterday the long serving ambulance man launched his book the culmination of his memories and "an ambulance service made great". He chats to Mark Story.

1 What sparked the book?

I felt there was a need for present staff and auxiliaries to have an understanding of the development path that the service had followed to become what it is today.

The original intention was to follow the path of the Hastings service, which I had belonged to, and been familiar with.

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However, as that service grew alongside the Napier equivalent, the two eventually merging and growing to incorporate Northern and Central Hawke's Bay areas, so did the scope of my book grow accordingly.

2 How long did it take to research?

Initially, the bulk of the information was in my head, and on notes that I had made during my time with the service - not knowing how it would eventually be applied.

The research began when I took my original effort to James Morgan to edit, and he pointed out the need to expand on the details and "create pictures".

He encouraged me to delve deeper into phases in the narrative and expand on what, in my mind, had already been covered. Four years (on and off) later, we had a book.

3 How long did you work for St John, and what was the biggest change in the evolution of the service you noticed in that time?

I was a voluntary driver from 1959 to 1971, covering weekends and night shifts during permanent staff holidays and illnesses.

This was on a roster basis with several other "Vollies". I also responded from my shop as required, when times for an extra ambulance arose.

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I also served on the ambulance management committee during that period and later continued in that capacity until 1981 when I sold my business and took a permanent position with the service as a control officer for the soon-to-be established regional control centre.

This was established and began operation in January of 1982, and that, along with the appointment of a superintendent was the biggest change in the evolution of the service. I continued with the service until 2000, when the control centre was transferred to Palmerston North initially, and is now in Wellington.

4 What's your most vivid memory of your time with St John?

I have many great memories during the 50-plus years with the organisation, from starting as a cadet in 1948, progressing to the adult division where I later became their superintendent, interspersed with the early years with the ambulance service and culminating with turning my interest into a vocation.

The stand-out memory would have to be the involvement with the tragic Kereru bus incident [Woodford House bus crash that claimed five lives in 1987].

One can't adequately describe the sensations and emotions experienced as we dealt with distraught callers enquiring after loved ones, some offering assistance, others seeking more information than we could supply as the drama was being handled, and at the same time helping to co-ordinate the various people and sectors involved - wonderful team-work by all concerned in every aspect and phase of the operation.

5 What's the biggest challenge to the service in the future?

To continue to provide adequate emergency coverage to an ever-growing and ever-demanding populace who expect a snap-finger response, while the service itself is struggling to cope with these demands on the funding allocated to them by the Health Ministry.

As hospitals struggle to cope with numbers presenting at their Emergency Department doors, it falls to the ambulances services to alleviate the problem by taking medical aid to the people, to try and direct them to the most appropriate source for advice and on-going treatment. I understand that moves are afoot in this direction and hope that appropriate funding is allocated to fulfil that aim.

The book is available from the author, John Tobin, phone 878 2432. Proceeds go to the St John Ambulance service in Hawke's Bay.