12 Oct 2015

Queenstown ambulances idle due to staff shortage

9:43 am on 12 October 2015

St John Ambulance is covering the entire Queenstown area with just two ambulances during the day, and one at night, due to funding and staff shortages.

Queenstown's ambulance fleet

Queenstown's ambulance fleet Photo: RNZ / Peter Newport

This is in spite of having six state-of-the-art ambulances sitting in a modern ambulance station, which was built using local business donations totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars - but it is understood 25 more staff are needed.

The ambulance station covers Queenstown airport as well as the Queenstown CBD, Frankton and Arrowtown.

Queenstown ambulance station sign

Photo: RNZ / Peter Newport

According to St John's District operations manager Pauline Buchanan, the seven current staff in Queenstown are enough to crew two ambulances during the day and that is normally sufficient coverage for the area. But she admits that resources are stretched and talks are underway with central government to secure more funding for ambulance services in the area.

When Radio New Zealand visited the ambulance station last Friday there was literally nobody there, not even at reception.

The Ambulance Station's reception area

The Ambulance Station's reception area Photo: RNZ / Peter Newport

All of the ambulances, including two parked in a separate carpark, were at the station. According to Ms Buchanan, this situation was not unusual because staff could be "out doing some PR work" or "dropping vehicles off for repairs".

In a recent skydiving accident only five minutes drive from the ambulance station, a skydive cameraman was critically injured when he crashed into the ground, breaking both his arms and sustaining serious head and chest injuries.

According to information given to Radio New Zealand, it took almost an hour to get an ambulance to the airfield and one of the skydive company staff had to drive the ambulance to the hospital.

St John said that according to its records, there were no Queenstown ambulances immediately available as both were attending other emergencies, and the response time was 24 minutes.

St John said that it took four or five minutes for the initial phone call to be answered by its contact centre. St John confirmed that a skydive company employee did have to drive the ambulance to the hospital because the two available crew members had to attend to the injured man.

Chairman of the local air rescue trust Jules Tapper said the St John staff shortages in Queenstown could have a devastating effect on helicopter rescue services because the trust relied on St John for medical personnel.

"They've signed a five-year contact with us and if they can't supply the people that has a direct effect on what we can do. It would be a sad day if we have to leave people out in the hills somewhere because we have no ambulance crew."

Mr Tapper is calling on central government to step in in order to fix the situation.

"St John probably can't afford to pay a premium for staff to come and work in Queenstown and a special case needs to be put to government in order to maintain this essential service."

Queenstown's Ambulance Station

Queenstown's Ambulance Station Photo: RNZ / Peter Newport

St John said the high cost of living in the resort, and a shortage of accommodation, were factors in the staff shortage.

Ms Buchanan said the need for additional resources was clearly understood, and an application has been made for additional government funding to ease the situation.

"I can assure you that St John is in discussions with the government over increased staffing, and consistently are, as we identify areas of need, and I'm sure Queenstown is in that mix," Ms Buchanan said.

Queenstown still has a volunteer fire brigade where fire crews have to abandon their regular jobs every time the fire siren is used.

Local acting commander Phil Marsh said this put pressure on responding to every call.

"It is difficult for them but we are trying to reduce the number of false alarms so that the volunteers know that they are responding to a real emergency."

The Fire Service has some medical capability which is used to support St John ambulance operations.

Queenstown has around 30,000 permanent residents but up to two million visitors pour into the resort each year, with that number forecast to rise with the introduction of night flights into Queenstown airport.

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