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In the danger zone

Monday, 15th December, 2014

Former Broken Hill RFDS chief Clyde Thomson (centre) in Kenya’s capital Nairobi with Sean Culligan and Steve Gitau from the AFD. Mr Thomson said in the past decade the African equivalent of the RFDS has gone from strength to strength. Former Broken Hill RFDS chief Clyde Thomson (centre) in Kenya’s capital Nairobi with Sean Culligan and Steve Gitau from the AFD. Mr Thomson said in the past decade the African equivalent of the RFDS has gone from strength to strength.

By Andrew Robertson

They both provide life-saving emergency medical evacuations and specialist care to thousands of sick and injured people over a vast area each year.

But when it comes to operational challenges and hazards of the job, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and its African equivalent are like chalk and cheese.

The African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) have been operating a not-for-profit air ambulance service across East Africa for almost 60 years.

Over the last 12 months, AMREF Flying Doctor (AFD) crews flew almost one million miles (1.6 million km) and evacuated over 900 patients in 56 different countries.

In Australia, the RFDS airlifted almost 55,000 patients in the 12 months to June, racking up over 26 million kilometres as its fleet of 63 aircraft criss-crossed the country.

Like the Aussie organisation that predates it, AFD also conducts medical outreach services and provides medical advice over the phone or radio during evacuations.

But if the objectives and services the two provide are similar, the environments in which they operate in are vastly different.

Where RFDS crews might have to contend with the occasional close encounter with wildlife, some bad weather or a dimly-lit dirt airstrip, the list of challenges for the African crews appear endless.

War zones, cross-border operations, politics and bureaucracy are major hurdles to evacuations, according to retired RFDS South Eastern executive officer Clyde Thomson.

Gaining flight clearances is cumbersome and clearing customs and immigration extremely challenging, he said.

“Add terrorism, tribal clashes, drought, famine and corruption into the equation and it makes operating an efficient air ambulance service in Africa a challenging task.”

Mr Thomson said the risk of being harmed is often a clear and present danger for crews when performing their job.

When conducting evacuations from Mogadishu airport in Somalia for the UN, for instance, the operating crew are given only 20 minutes’ protection by troops against terrorist attack.

“Needless to say, all evacuations are completed in this time frame.

“Working in Nairobi also has its challenges with terrorist attacks occasionally taking place, the last one being an attack by Al-Shabaab terrorists on civilians in a bus travelling from Somalia to Kenya.”

For the past decade Mr Thomson has been providing advice and guidance to the AFD and even travels to its base in Kenya each year.

His participation followed a request by Prince Charles who, in 2003, asked the RFDS to support the operations and further development of the small-scale AFD.

Mr Thomson, who still serves on the AFD board and has just returned from Nairobi where he attended the annual strategic planning workshop and AGM, also set up reciprocal study tours that allowed African staff to explore operations and systems in Australia and apply them back home.

AFD CEO Dr Bettina Vadera and head of operations Sean Culligan have twice visited the RFDS in Broken Hill and a third visit is planned for next year.

It’s been a successful relationship for AFD, which is now the best-known air ambulance service in the region with access to over 20 aircraft and contracts with the United Nations.

“Since becoming involved with (AFD) they have progressed from being a small organisation with three small aircraft operating in Kenya and neighbouring countries, with several hundred flights each year, to an internationally recognised provider of aeromedical services today,” Mr Thomson said.

“Their international standing has been recognised by the award of International Air Ambulance Provider of the year in 2014.”

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