The future of a lifesaving medical crew that quickly reaches injured mountain bikers in Rotorua's Whakarewarewa Forest is in jeopardy after ACC pulled its funding.
The Rotorua Mountain Bike Club First Response Unit has been operating for more than three years and during that time has rushed to the aid of an estimated 1000 riders in strife.
But the club has just learned ACC will stop its funding from April next year.
An ACC spokesperson said it continuously reviewed the funding decisions to "ensure they got the best possible outcomes from the investments for all New Zealanders".
"In this instance, we've been unable to demonstrate the impact of the service on the rate and severity of injuries in the park. However, ACC remains committed to injury prevention initiatives for cyclists, including our investment in BikeReady, a cycle safety training programme in partnership with Waka Kotahi (NZ Transport Agency)," the spokesperson said in a statement.
The service contracts Peak Safety to deliver a first response in the forest which sees the medics, who are capable riders with strong knowledge of the trails, able to get to injured riders quickly. The mean response time for the past four years is 10 minutes, according to a report written by the club and given to ACC.
The service is advertised among the mountain biking community and riders know to call 0800 WHAKA1 if they need urgent attention. When medics respond to callouts, they either deal with the patients themselves - therefore reducing the workload for St John ambulance - or carry the patients out on backboards to areas where an ambulance or rescue helicopter can reach.
The service costs about $120,000 a year to run and between $60,000 to $80,000 comes from ACC.
Club member Dr Erin Eggleston said they now had a "big uphill battle" to try to find funders to keep the service going.
He said the club had a membership of about 700 and they hoped to grow it to about 3000, including attracting more Aucklanders.
He said Aucklanders were the second biggest group needing help, equating to almost the same as the number of Rotorua riders. However the unit went to the rescue of riders from all over the North Island and beyond, including a large number from overseas. Therefore Eggleston said it was hoped they could appeal to membership from Aucklanders and elsewhere.
He said they were also looking for a naming rights sponsor to give between $40,000 to $60,000 a year and they would also apply to more charitable funding organisations.
In the report to ACC about the service, the club outlined details about what the service had provided.
It said it had attended 705 incidents in the forest over weekends, school holidays and public holidays (it is estimated to be closer to 1000 once the mid-week service started in 2019).
Each member of the unit has medical knowledge, is trained in extricating patients and has a detailed geographical knowledge of the forest.
The responders deal with broken bones, soft tissue injuries, head injuries, dislocations and spinal injuries. Pain relief was given to 32 per cent of patients, 23 per cent needed wounds dressed, 40 per cent needed splints or slings, 22 per cent needed assessment only and 8 per cent (or 57 patients) needed to be backboarded from the forest.
They have transported 388 patients to the edge of the forest to meet an ambulance or other transport, the report said.
Of the 705 patients, 118 were considered stable but could become unstable and nine were considered unstable, which meant they could easily deteriorate or die while waiting more than an hour for an ambulance, the report said.
The 57 riders who were backboarded from the forest, mostly with suspected spinal injuries, represented a group that would have much worse and expensive medical outcomes if they had to lie on their ground for several hours waiting for help to arrive, according to the report.
Rotorua man Scott Kuegler said, in the report, the First Response Unit saved his life.
"I was lying there with a broken neck. My mate called First Response and 111. While still on the phone to 111, the first responders turned up. I was freezing with my face in the dirt. They got me on a backboard and carefully moved me up the bank to a stump where I could be winched from."
He said he was winched through the canopy by a rescue helicopter and was taken straight to Rotorua Hospital.
"I am told I am one of the 2 per cent that survive a broken neck, with C2 broken into 10 pieces. I can't thank the team enough for holding my neck straight and supporting me on to the board and into the helicopter. Without the team I would have died."
St John ambulance Lakes territory manager Leisa Tocknell told the Rotorua Daily Post local ambulance staff and the first responders had an excellent working relationship.
"Without their help, it will mean patients in the forest will have a longer wait time simply because St John doesn't have the specialised equipment that they do. The quicker anyone with medical skills can get to an injured person, the better the long-term outcomes will be."