The Bay Trust Rescue Helicopter hangar was standing room only as about 500 locals showed their support against proposed changes to the air ambulance service.

The meeting was an opportunity for the public to find out the full story behind the proposed changes and what it meant for the community, within an hour a petition against taking the helicopter out of Rotorua had received more than 400 signatures.

Local barrister Jonathan Temm led the speeches by pointing to the helicopter which sat on its landing pad outside the open hangar doors.

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"My only connection with that helicopter, is that machine, and the people on it attended a scene where 10 young people had been involved in a motor vehicle accident, and my son was one of them."

When he asked how many other families had benefited from the service hands went up around the room.

"That machine is partially funded by the Crown or the state, but 40 to 60 per cent of its funding comes from us, the community.

"[National Ambulance Sector Office] never asked us about their plan, and that is a fundamental flaw."

Since the announcement, at the start of April, it has been revealed Fire and Emergency New Zealand, Rotorua police and LandSAR were also not consulted, Temm said.

"The people who operate this service for us, they go out at any time, in any weather, for all kinds of services.

"They deserve our respect, they deserve our support and our energy to save a service they provide for us, a service they provide for people they don't even know."

Temm said Rotorua had the added impact of being a tourist destination.


"We ask people to come here, that's how we survive, people aren't going to Palmerston North for their holidays.

"If we invite people to our place, we've got to be able to look after and care for them, that's part of being a good host."

Rotorua Mayor Steve Chadwick is hoping to seek assurances, in a meeting with Ministry of Health officials next week, that the level of service provided by air ambulance services won't be reduced.

"The emotions are very high in this room.

"I wanted to hear from you today to help develop our strategy and to know the level of community concern, you are demonstrating that to us this morning."

Chadwick said she needed assurances Rotorua would not be disadvantaged by whatever model is eventually adopted.

"We need to know that the level of service for our district will be maintained or even improved and that's what I will be advocating for.

"It makes sense to look at better co-ordinating the service nationally to provide full coverage and improve efficiencies, so I support that rationale – but we don't want the result to impact negatively on levels of service.

"From what I know so far the request for proposals to run the service nationally is intended to improve the service and its coverage and I'm told no final decision has yet been made. However, our community is very concerned about the possible loss of this vital service and what that might mean."

It was standing room only at a public meeting for the Bay Trust Rescue Helicopter. Photo/Stephen Parker
It was standing room only at a public meeting for the Bay Trust Rescue Helicopter. Photo/Stephen Parker

The list of regions where air ambulances would be based under the new system would come into effect on November 1. Under the proposal the closest bases would be Tauranga, Hamilton and Palmerston North.

Rotorua MP Todd McClay said when Rotorua and Taupo combined have more than double the helicopter call outs of Tauranga something about that decision was wrong.

"That tender document needs to be reopened and Rotorua included.

"I think it's important that we show our support and to see so many people turn out, I think sends a very strong message.

"I think what's best for all of us, is that helicopter remains here."

Waiariki MP Tamati Coffey said he certainly felt "pressure" from the room.

"In the last two weeks I have learnt a lot about air ambulances services and I got a hold of the proposal, which I understand was started in 2016.

"A working group was put together to review the air ambulance services and I suspect not many people in that working group were in the central north island.

"We are the home of some of the most beautiful lakes in the country, to the Kaingaroa forest where people go to work and play and near the mountains where people go to climb and walk and in the winter, to ski. We need this service here."

Lakes District Health Board chairman Deryck Shaw said the Bay Trust Rescue Helicopter was a "critical service" for the health of our community.

"The district health board is very concerned.

"Just in this room, to see the number of people that have been impacted by this service and that includes me, my own brother was taken to hospital in that helicopter.

"We need a sustainable service that's going to meet the needs of our region."

Shaw said no one disagreed it was important to review these services.

"It really comes down to an argument about money and the priorities of Wellington."

About 500 people came together to show their support for the Bay Trust Rescue Helicopter. Photo/Stephen Parker
About 500 people came together to show their support for the Bay Trust Rescue Helicopter. Photo/Stephen Parker

Bay Trust Helicopter base manager Ben Fry said he just wanted whatever was best for the community and for the best service to be provided.

"It was a very good turn out, which shows the passion from the community."

Concerned local Chris Ennor comes from an aviation background himself and said the geography didn't make sense to him.

"I am a supporter of the helicopter anyway, but the geographical thing doesn't even make sense to me.

"These extreme weather patterns we've been having, we'll end up having situations where a helicopter just can't make it from Hamilton or Tauranga."

Mereheeni Hooker has had her own experience with the rescue helicopter when her niece was airlifted from a car crash.

"This meeting is a good start, it was very well organised and very well presented."