Call for more life-saving helicopters

What would you do if you won the lottery? Jim Roney said if he ever did he’d buy a helicopter, but it wouldn’t be for the glamour. A horrific incident in 2013 resulted in Jim having a life-saving flight in the RAC Rescue Helicopter and he wants this service to be expanded.

Animal life is abundant on the farm, Roney Roost. Geese, pigs, cattle, and guinea fowls roam the fields. I wander up to the farmhouse to be greeted by Doreen, Jim’s wife. She has set up three chairs for us on the veranda where we can overlook the farm. It is beautiful and green.

Jim is out feeding the pigs as Doreen hands me a photo album of Jim’s accident. The first photo I open to is Jim camping before the accident, a striking juxtaposition to the next photo which shows Jim on life support. As pages turn and the days progress, the burns appear on Jim’s skin and it becomes un-imaginable what Jim went through.

Jim returns from the pigs and I finish looking through the album. He has never looked at the photos. Still in the same length shorts he was wearing the morning of the accident; he says he wears his scars with pride.

It was April 15, 2013, and at 9:30am Doreen was on the phone to her mother.

“I heard a huge bang and then silence…. Which I knew straight away was strange. I went outside and I started to run but I couldn’t and then I saw Lauretta [their daughter] screaming, ‘Dad is on fire’,” Doreen recounted.

Jim was welding a fuel tank in his workshop when it exploded. He does not remember anything at all from the accident. He received burns to over fifty per cent of his body and lost a finger on his right hand.

Jim urgently needed to get to Royal Perth Hospital, more than a two-hour trip by road from their property. In 2013, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) only had one operating rescue helicopter which was based in Jandakot. Time was so critical that the 80-minute round-trip to get to Jim and return to Royal Perth was deemed necessary.

Jim in Royal Perth hospital, still smiling. Photo: Supplied.

Jim cannot thank the RAC Rescue Helicopter Service enough for that and their continuing operation. Only 14 months after Jim’s accident, the helicopter picked up his daughter. She had been in a serious road accident in which she suffered head and spinal injuries.

Stories like Jim’s highlight the impact this service has on individuals and our communities. People have always said ‘money can’t buy happiness’, but it could buy a life-saving helicopter.

An expert’s insight

Senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University David Ford is writing a PhD on survival rates of major trauma patients in rural Western Australia. Ford is full of knowledge and his passion for his work shines through in his expertise.

With almost 90 per cent of rescue helicopter missions taking place in regional WA. He is using data to show how direct helicopter emergency retrieval from an incident scene can save the lives of major trauma patients.

“The mortality from major trauma in country WA, in some parts, is more than four times the mortality rate from major trauma in Perth,” David explained. He wants people in country areas of WA to have the same access to direct helicopter retrieval that people have in other parts of Australia.   

Ford explains there are usually two reasons given why additional funding and more rescue helicopters are not justified in WA. The two helicopters have a range of 250km and cover approximately 90 to 95 per cent of WA’s population.

Ford said newer technology helicopters mean it would be possible to pick people up direct from an incident scene and fly them to Perth. These newer technology helicopters such as the AgustaWestland AW139 in Queensland have a 400km range compared to the 250km of the RAC Rescue helicopters in WA. The AW139 could fly from Perth to Carnarvon and back without the need to refuel.

“The two helicopters we have now are great aircraft, they are just old generation,” Ford said.

Secondly, Ford mentions the claim the two existing helicopters cover approximately 90-95% of the WA population.

“There is about 250 major trauma patients coming from country WA who do not have access to these helicopters,” he said.

“As there are about 750 major trauma patients a year and you’re looking at about a third of those who don’t have access to the rescue helicopter, not 5% it’s like 30% of major traumas at least won’t have access.”

David Ford is a Senior lecturer at Edith Cowan University. Photo: Supplied.

In comparison to other states, Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales all have a dozen or more helicopters. Western Australia has two in the state. Ford points out Queensland has double the population and five times the helicopters of WA.

The RAC helicopters in WA are currently equipped to do four types of missions; search and rescue, primary response, secondary response and transport of DFES personnel to the primary frontline. Primary response makes up 78% of all missions and refers to priority one emergency cases. Western Australia operates two rescue helicopters from Jandakot and Bunbury airports. The most northernly based state rescue helicopter is at Jandakot airport.

“Putting a helicopter up at Geraldton certainly gives a much bigger rescue capacity as well, you get all these things when you put a rescue helicopter in,” Ford said.

Ford said it is about people in country areas of WA being able to have the same access to direct helicopter retrieval that people have in other parts of Australia.

“People living in the country areas of these other states have much better access to direct helicopter retrieval in the case of trauma or medical case or rescue then they do in WA,” he said.

The DFES RAC Rescue helicopters operate to save lives and Jim is an example of someone who is still here today to hug his family and continue projects in his workshop because of these helicopters. That’s why Jim’s lotto dream includes shopping for a chopper.

Jim and Doreen on their property in Elgin. Photo: Bella Kitchen

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