'It's endangering lives'
AFTER 43 years working at Maclean Hospital, with more than a decade as the director of nursing, Anne Farrell knows how important the helipad is to the community.
"When we called for a helicopter it was huge, it meant someone is in big bother and every minute wasted was crucial," she said.
Now as the president of Maclean Rotary, she is leading a campaign from the club to have the helipad rebuilt after it was closed last May.
She said stop-gap measures to transport patients via ambulance to the helicopter, first to a Palmers Island airfield, and now to underneath the hospital at Wherrett Park are still causing critical delays.
"When we used the helipad before it was closed, all it was was a phone call to organise for the retrieval team to come, and they'd land at the hospital, and someone would meet them at the gate," Ms Farrell said.
"Now they have to coordinate an ambulance to transport the patient from the hospital, even though the current site is underneath the hospital, the ambulance has to transport them there.
"The actual distance is three minutes' drive, but it's longer if you have to coordinate with the ambulance, and they can be as scarce as hen's teeth."
Anecdotally, Ms Farrell said she had been told of wait times of up to an hour and a half to coordinate ambulances that were performing other jobs.
"It's endangering lives, you need a timely retrieval," she said.
The Maclean Rotary Club has a special interest in the helipad, after its members helped design and build the original helipad for $70,000 in 2005. The helipad was closed last year after an independent audit of existing helipads against new safety and engineering guidelines.
The pad is also too small for the newly acquired helicopters in use by the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service.
Chief executive officer of the Northern NSW Local Health District, Wayne Jones, said they had received costing estimates for a number of options to bring the Maclean helipad into line with updated safety and security guidelines.
"The preferred option is to redevelop the existing helipad on its current site," he said.
Member for Clarence Chris Gulaptis said these revised costings, which were now down to $750,000 from an initial assessment of $1.5 million, still seemed excessive to rebuild the helipad.
"In saying that - there's no doubt it's a vital piece of infrastructure for the Maclean Hospital because we're a district hospital and we don't have the staff and resource to deal with complex medical cases, and quite often we have to have them transferred to other hospitals where there is that expertise," he said.
Mr Gulaptis said while the LHD would determine the priority of the project, he saw it as the number one priority for the Maclean Hospital.
"This will save lives - while we do have a helicopter retrieval service that works but you're reliant on having an ambulance available and sometimes you have to wait - and that waiting time is critical," he said.
"It's a fundamental need, and I will raise it with the health minister and the deputy premier."
Ms Farrell said the Rotary Club would also continue to campaign for the restoration of the service, but the amounts discussed for its replacement were too much for any community group to raise.
"It's way out of our league, but as the original constructors we do feel very responsible for it."