Dargaville’s St John Ambulance team are proud of their new First Response Unit, which has expanded their life saving capabilities

Extending a lifeline across the Kaipara

by Andy Bryenton

Maungaturoto’s St John Ambulance service made front page news early in July, with the confirmation that a new First Response Unit would be joining their fleet, and that seven new full-time officers would come on force, ending single-crewed ambulance services in the east of our district. Now Dargaville can confirm similar changes, providing superior coverage to the west as well.

It’s part of a strategy, which will see big changes to the life-saving St John team throughout the Kaipara, and it’s a move welcomed by health professionals and citizens alike. Part of the roll-out of this rapid response coverage is the deployment of new, high tech First Response Unit vehicles, able to go places where an ambulance cannot, and speed up the time between an emergency call and experienced medical crew being on the scene.

The new fleet of 14 Volkswagen First Response Units was handed over to St John at a launch event in Auckland on July 11 2019. Designed as specialist First Response Units, the new ambulances will enhance emergency response times to isolated communities, an important step in improving the equity and access of healthcare to all New Zealanders. Tony Devanney, St John assistant director of operations, says the fit-for-purpose vehicles are smaller and nimbler than a traditional ambulance.

“They are ideal for narrow roads, difficult terrain and St John first responders working outside metropolitan areas. These new units have ample room for treating and stabilising patients while a transporting ambulance is on the way, ensuring the best possible clinical care for our patients,” says Mr Devanney.

As part of St John’s approach to delivering ambulance services, the new vehicles, crewed by dedicated volunteers, will be able to quickly locate and assess patients, and transport locally or to meet a helicopter or transporting ambulance. Contributions from donors around the country have made the delivery of these vehicles possible.

The first fleet arriving in July will be stationed in Russell, Maungaturoto, Dargaville, Hahei, Mokau, Opunake, Murupara, Waihau Bay, Hicks Bay, Te Kaha, Opotiki, Porangahau, Pongaroa and Picton. St John plans to roll-out 60 of these ‘game-changing’ new vehicles during the next few years, positively transforming the way isolated and rural communities respond to health emergencies and accidents.

The other side of this expansion comes down to the most important asset of the St John order — people. In May 2017, the government signalled increased funding to end single-crewing of ambulances. When this changeover is complete two first responders will crew each vehicle, providing mutual support and backup. The move has been called one of the most significant developments in New Zealand’s ambulance service history, and in an area such as the Kaipara, with its miles of isolated roads, increasing the presence of trained and confident EMTs (emergency medical technicians) when they’re needed is sure to save lives.

What this means is a chance for our local ambulance service to grow, but that also means an opportunity and a necessity for local people to step up and assist. St John is at its heart an order made up of volunteers, and while the heritage of the name stretches back to the Knights of Malta, those who serve in this lifesaving capacity are more everyday heroes. People from all backgrounds and walks of life have volunteered their time and expertise, learning skills which have saved lives in their communities.

Some will take on paid employment in the ambulance service, while many other beneficial programmes (from caring callers contacting socially isolated people to assistance at outdoor events) are run entirely by volunteers. Front line volunteers (those who will crew emergency vehicles) must have a clean drivers license, be physically fit and able, and pass a drug test. There’s room for advancement; all the paid officers in Dargaville, and both of the mid-north region’s Territory Managers began in volunteer roles.

Additionally, serving with St John makes a fine addition to a person’s CV in this era of health and safety consciousness in the workplace.

As St John’s new vehicles and equipment arrive this week, and a new era of expanded staffing, coverage and care begins, it’s a good time to think about your ability to help. If you are interested in finding out more, talk to your local St John ambulance station team, or visit join.stjohn.org.nz for further information about this rewarding way to give back to the community. An open day is planned for August 17, when the new First Response Vehicle will be blessed, and potential volunteers can speak to their local St John team about joining up.