A Westport family had to take their elderly relative to Buller Hospital on Tuesday night because a St John ambulance couldn't come for 90 minutes.

The family made a 111 call and was told the ambulance would have to travel from Karamea, 100km away.

St John subsequently dispatched the ambulance, but turned it back after the patient's family provided transport.

The man was later transferred to Grey Base Hospital in Greymouth aboard the NZCC rescue helicopter. It's understood the helicopter made the flight from Greymouth just before the weather closed in.


Responding to written questions from The News, St John district operations manager, Tasman, James McMeekin, said St John "unusually" couldn't provide a Westport ambulance Tuesday night because it had no volunteer crew available.

"Therefore, as per St John procedures, we dispatched a nearby ambulance that was able to respond within the appropriate time."

Mr McMeekin said the 111 call did not qualify as an emergency.

"The call was classified as a green call -- low acuity (not life-threatening). The patient's family had extensive consultation on the phone with our clinical adviser.

"The Karamea ambulance was sent as it was an appropriate response for a low acuity call.

"The family then chose to transport their family member."

St John could not send an ambulance from Granity, 28km from Westport, because it no longer has an ambulance based there.

Mr McMeekin said Tuesday night was the first time in six months St John had been unable to respond to a 111 call in Westport.

St John's contingency plan if the same issue arose in future would be to respond in the same way.

The News asked what would have happened if the weather had closed in, preventing a helicopter transfer to Greymouth.

Mr McMeekin said lead clinicians decided how patients should be transferred between hospitals, then contacted St John.

"In the event that a helicopter transfer cannot occur, a fixed-wing aircraft (which is more weather resilient) can be requested; otherwise the closest available ambulance will be dispatched."

He said St John did not hold a contract with the West Coast District Health Board (DHB) for 111 calls. St John provided the DHB with a daily, scheduled, inter-hospital transfer service between Grey Base and Christchurch hospitals.

The News asked to speak directly to Mr McMeekin, but was told he was unavailable and St John had nothing more to say.

The News also submitted written questions to the West Coast District Health Board asking what the DHB was doing about ambulance availability in Westport, what contingency plans were in place for when no ambulance was available, and what ambulance services St John was contracted to provide.

Team leader, planning and funding, Philip Wheble, responded: "Emergency ambulance services in Westport are provided by St John through a national agreement with the Ministry of Health. The DHB and St John have had a number of meetings to discuss services and how we can work together to improve those services for our communities."

- Westport News