When did the first air ambulance service start in the UK?


London’s air ambulance helicopter. Photo by Adam Giles on Flickr.

Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) were introduced in 1987. The first operationally was the Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust founded in April of that year.

HEMS with their helicopters aim to provide a swift response to 999 emergency calls, bringing hospital resuscitating theatre techniques to the patient, stabilising them, and getting them quickly off to hospital. All within the so-called ‘golden hour’ after the incident when prompt treatment is vital in trauma cases.

There are now 30 helicopters currently in service across England and Wales. Crews are composed of a pilot and two paramedics or critical care paramedics. Increasingly the crews include an emergency physician. A doctor on board greatly improves pre-hospital care and treatment for trauma. The physician can carry out surgical procedures and administer strong pain killers. The London air ambulance was the first to try doctors in the crew and this is now standard procedure in several air ambulance services across the country.

Air ambulances can also provide immediate and direct transportation to specialist treatment centres, saving intermediate trips by road. Helicopters are often faster than by road and sometimes are a more comfortable ride, although there can be a few problems with some unstable patients.

Forty percent of air ambulance emergency calls are to road traffic collisions.

There are 18 HEMS in England and Wales, each collaborating with the National Health Service (NHS). There are 2 air ambulances in Scotland operated by the Scottish Ambulance Service.

Each of the 18 HEMS is a registered charity and rely on public donations. Without the benefit of statutory funding each has to raise funds to ensure their service continues.

Air ambulances fly over 19,000 missions each year and each air ambulance mission costs, on average, £1,229. On average each helicopter costs £840,000 each year to maintain, so one can see how vital fund raising is.

Helicopters do have their disadvantages aside from the cost, helicopters can be hindered by bad weather; night operations are very limited; and this limited resource requires careful tasking to ensure they are despatched to suitable incidents.

Despite some of these disadvantages, having seen a friend resuscitated three times back to life by the air ambulance doctor, I know the importance of this service.

If you are interested in supporting your local air ambulance then visit the Association of Air Ambulances to find your local service.

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