The Waipukurau St John volunteers behind the wheel of Central Hawke's Bay's new First Response Unit say they are getting used to being joined at the hip to their ever-present pagers.

The electronic pagers alert first responders like Suzanne Jordan, a physiotherapy assistant at Hawke's Bay Hospital in Hastings, Vaughn Thomson, a Waipawa-based employee of Hawke's Bay Regional Council, and Kendell O'Connor, the friendly face behind the counter and classified advertising sales rep at the CHB Mail, to call-outs at any time of the day or night — sometimes even during their working day.

The trio, part of a team of five trained first responders, are certainly no strangers to pagers having all worked on frontline St John ambulances previously. But after their new bright yellow Hyundai SUV hit the streets in July after a St John restructure to provide only double-crewed vehicles, they now carry pagers at all times, rather than hand them back with the ambulance keys at the end of a 12-hour shift.

After being alerted by her beeping pager last month, Kendell O'Connor found herself dashing to get changed after she was called out to respond to her first emergency during a work day.


She was recently given approval by her employers, NZME, the publishers CHB Mail and Hawke's Bay Today, to respond to call-outs during working hours.

"It got pretty exciting when the pager went off. I have a uniform hanging up out the back of the office. I was straight down the corridor to get changed and then out the back door. It helps that the office is right behind the St John station," grinned the mum of two, a St John volunteer for four years, who appreciated the gesture from her employers.

"I love my job at the paper, but my volunteer role with St John and serving the community is equally important to me."

Vaughn Thomson said he appreciated the contrast between his day job and his "other job".

"I like the difference between the two, going from heavy equipment to helping people," he said.

"It was something I wanted to do for a long time and I've been [with St John] for seven years now," said Vaughn, who is a trained EMT (Emergency medical technician] and is now also seeking permission from the regional council to attend call-outs during work hours.

Another trained EMT who has been with St John for 12 years, Suzanne Jordan, said her first responder role was a logical extension of her work as a health professional at the region's hospital in Hastings.

"I like the contact with people and just being there to help people in our community."


Like the eight full-time paid paramedics and EMTs that crew the district's frontline ambulance, the first response vehicle must be double crewed for any call-outs.

The vehicle itself is not designed to transport people to hospital, instead the first responders provide early treatment of patients while an ambulance is en route.

But Vaughn said the new vehicle contained all the same life-saving equipment found in a St John ambulance — including a defibrillator and trauma kit.

"The only thing we don't have is a stretcher to transport people [to hospital]. It's the first of its type in Hawke's Bay so it's a learning curve, but it's working well."

The decision to replace one of the district's ambulances with a vehicle unable to transport people to hospital angered some local residents, but Vaughn believed its arrival as part of the move to double crews was "absolutely the best thing for patients," to which Kendell agreed.

"It's better because you are getting a response unit out in a shorter period of time," she said.

The volunteers said the other strength of the new structure was the camaraderie between the first responders.

"We work easily together as a team, we all know each other, and it seems to flow nicely," said Suzanne.

"We really do get along together inside and outside of St John," Kendell said.

St John territory manager Brendon Hutchinson said five more CHB volunteers would soon come on board as first responders.

"St John thanks all volunteers who give their time and acknowledge that this is a significant commitment. It's great to see employers such as NZME prepared to release volunteers to attend jobs during their regular working hours, also a significant and generous undertaking."

NZME central region general manager Glen Smith said it was an "easy decision" to grant Kendell permission to attend call outs during the day, despite the potential loss in productivity.

"NZME is proud of what our staff do out in the community and when Kendell approached us with what she wanted to do, it was an easy decision for us.

"As a first responder, Kendell's presence at the scene may save lives. That factor outweighed all other considerations," he said.