Ready to save lives, but not cleared for take-off

John Kearney, chief executive of Irish Community Rapid Response (ICRR), and pilot Capt John Murray, on board the new ICRR air ambulance at its launch last September in Kerry Airport. The charity-funded aircraft is ready to help save lives, but it is grounded in its purpose-built hangar until the health minister signs off on it. Picture: Don MacMonagle

Ireland’s first charity-funded air ambulance has been sitting in a hangar for months waiting for ministerial approval to launch.

And the team behind the life-saving service has now issued a stark warning that delays could cost lives.

Irish Community Rapid Response (ICRR), which has spent hundreds of thousands of euro donated by the public to lease the aircraft, develop an airbase, and train medical and support staff, has confirmed that their helicopter has been in situ at its new base in Co Cork since January.

However, the aircraft can not respond to emergencies until Health Minister Simon Harris signs off on various recommendations from the HSE’s National Ambulance Service (NAS) and the Department of Health, the Irish Examiner has learned.

ICRR said it is now incurring payroll costs while the wait for this official approval goes on.

“ICRR is grateful to the public for its ongoing overwhelming support for the service and urges the announcement of an imminent start date,” it said in a statement issued to this paper.

Existing air ambulance services have been proven to save lives, both in Ireland and abroad, and this is why getting the service into operation is imperative, as delays could cost lives.

ICRR is dedicated to the development of pre-hospital emergency care in Ireland. It operates a fleet of rapid-response medically-equipped jeeps which allows volunteer doctors bring the equivalent of a hospital emergency room to the scene of life-threatening incidents.

Following years of planning and fundraising for an air ambulance service, ICRR unveiled its new aircraft last September and said it was hoped the service would be operational within six weeks.

The charity will fund the leasing and operation of the aircraft, and the Department of Health will provide the paramedic personnel on board the helicopter.

ICRR has spent more than €50,000 on paramedic training and almost €400,000 developing an Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) approved airbase in Rathcoole.

The charity signed a service-level agreement with the HSE in January, but says it is still waiting for ministerial approval before it can ‘go live’ as a declared asset of the HSE’s NAS, and respond to 112/999 calls.

It said it is satisfied that the requirements and specifications, which it was tasked with, are all in place, and it said the decision on when the service goes live now rests with the Minister for Health.

“Minister Harris holds final responsibility to make this decision, based on recommendations he receives from the HSE NAS and the Department of Health,” ICRR said.

In a statement, the HSE said the NAS is continuing to work with the charity to implement the service.

A due diligence process is currently ongoing to ensure a model of safe, appropriate service delivery is in place. Once complete, a start date will be agreed,” it said.

Meanwhile, the AW109 air ambulance sits in the hangar, ready to respond.

When operational, it will be able to bring two paramedics and a range of medical equipment — equivalent to that found in a hospital’s emergency department — to the scene of life-threatening incidents to allow critically-ill patients receive life-saving treatment at the scene, before flying them to hospital within the so-called ‘golden hour’ when medical intervention is most crucial.

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