Interview with Devon Air Ambulance CEO Helena Holt

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Those of us who live in the South Hams have probably seen the Devon Air Ambulance at some point, arriving in our small corner of the county to deliver life-saving treatment. But how much do you know about this amazing charity? We spoke to Devon Air Ambulance CEO, Helena Holt…

How did the Devon Air Ambulance start?

It all started when 18-year-old Ceri Thomas was knocked off his bicycle and sadly later died in hospital. When his mum Ann asked what could have saved his life, the consultant said the only thing that could have possibly made a difference was getting him to treatment more quickly. That was in 1987 - Cornwall Air Ambulance had just launched, so Ann started a campaign to raise money for a similar service in Devon. After a lot of time, effort and sheer hard work, Devon Air Ambulance launched in 1992.

What kind of situations does the Air Ambulance help in?

Approximately 50% of our call-outs are to medical incidents, such as heart attacks, strokes or asthma attacks, and 50% involve major trauma such as road traffic collisions, riding accidents or agricultural incidents. A very small number of our call outs are inter-hospital transfers. The whole aim of the service is to provide a life-saving service to anyone in Devon – resident or visitor – who needs urgent treatment. Really, we’re just giving people the best chance possible.

We are very fortunate to have a specialist team of highly trained dispatchers who work in the ambulance service control room. They can assess every call they receive to make sure it meets the very clear criteria we have for sending the air ambulance, as well as using their knowledge of the enhanced skills the paramedics and doctors have onboard, the equipment (which is different to standard land ambulances) and also the location and flying conditions. The dispatch service is funded by all the Air Ambulance charities across the South West.

How exactly does the Air Ambulance operate?

Devon Air Ambulance Trust is a charity and focuses on raising the money we need to operate our service. For a small charity, there is a lot of complex administration needed to keep everything running smoothly – from office and finance staff, to our retail operations and the demanding work that goes into managing and processing our donations. We are also really lucky to have over 500 volunteers who help out in every part of the charity, as well as a board of trustees who volunteer their time to oversee the charity and make sure we do everything professionally and ethically.

As well as the charity, we also have a Trading Company, which operates the aircraft, employs the pilots, our engineer and the operational support team, and is regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority. They are the organisation which grant us our Air Operating Certificate to enable us to independently operate our helicopters.

Both the Trust and the Trading Company work together to provide our service.

Why is the Air Ambulance particularly important in Devon?

It’s largely because of our geography! Devon is one of the largest counties in the UK, but it has a very small resident population and welcomes a large number of visitors and tourists. As anyone knows who lives, works or visits here, we also have a lot of smaller B roads and country lanes.

One of the big challenges is therefore the distance between where the patient is located, and the most appropriate hospital for their needs. People are sometimes surprised that we don’t always fly to the nearest hospital, but because we can get anywhere quickly, it is better for our patients if they get taken to the hospital which can give them the most appropriate care. So, in Devon, our nearest major trauma centre is at Derriford Hospital in Plymouth, but we can also take children who need care to Bristol or even fly patients as far as the specialist burns centre in Swansea.

The air ambulance paramedics also have enhanced skills and can use more advanced procedures, medication and sedation than they can on a land ambulance. So sometimes we’re not tasked because we can get to a patient faster but because of the very specific medical treatment they need. Because our teams go to the some of the most challenging and difficult cases, not only are these enhanced skills vital but they can be used to test new equipment and processes, which can then be shared with our land ambulance colleagues to enhance their own skills.

What would have happened in those situations before the Air Ambulance?

Due to patient confidentiality, we don’t have access to the records of the patients we help so it is sometimes difficult to quantify the difference we have made in terms of outcomes. However, without the air ambulance, the person in need would have to wait for a land ambulance and, because most of the incidents we attend are time-critical, this could mean the difference between life and death.

We are always delighted to hear from our patients and their families when they contact us and sharing their stories really brings home what a fantastic charity we have. We would encourage any of our patients to contact us through our website or by telephoning and speaking to our dedicated Patient Liaison Officer.

On a small number of cases, with support from the Trauma Audit Network, we do get some feedback. There was a national paper published recently highlighting the improvement in trauma outcomes as a result of the development of major trauma networks, including Devon Air Ambulance. That survey estimated that, since 2012, 1600 patients had survived that might not have done so before. In the South West, most of the time the only way a person with major trauma is going to get to a trauma centre within the 45-minute recommended time-frame is by Air Ambulance. Read more here

There are other air ambulances around the country - is there a connection between them all?

Yes! We have a national association which helps to promote good practice through its clinical, operational and communications committees, as well as holding national conferences, sharing learning from air ambulances worldwide and working collaborative behind the scenes. From a fundraising perspective, it works really well because local people like to support a local charity and know that their contributions are making a real difference in their community, and we also benefit from the support of our colleagues at the other air ambulance charities, both here in the South West and across the country.

Are there any particular projects that you’re working on at the moment?

There are a number of things. Firstly, we never stop fundraising – we need about £6.4m every year to support the day-to-day operation of our two air ambulances!

Over the last few years, we have also been focusing on working with local communities to develop community landing sites to support night operations, and we have been particularly well supported in the South Hams.

Legally we can land in the dark, but it’s quicker and safer if we can land at a pre-surveyed site. To make this happen, we work with local communities to set up their own landing site, which we can support with grants to assist with the cost of the necessary lighting installations and in improving access. We have just over another year to run on this initiative and are well on track to meet our target of over 200 community landing sites across the county.

We have also just signed the contract to purchase a new helicopter, which will be delivered and ready to go into service in 2020. Deciding on which helicopter to buy has been a long, complex process – we eventually chose an Airbus 145, the ‘big brother’ of our current helicopters, which gives us more space, greater flexibility and helps to ‘future proof’ our service. We will now be working to ensure the interior fit is absolutely perfect for our needs and putting in place a comprehensive training plan for our crews.

How can people support the Devon Air Ambulance?

Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to support us in whatever way they can - that might be giving us a cash donation, becoming a member of our lottery, giving some of their time through volunteering, buying something from one of our 19 shops or donating stock, leaving us a gift in their will or organising local fundraising events – our supporters are really creative, so come up with some wonderful and wacky ideas on how to raise money for DAA!

When Devon Air Ambulance started, a lot of time and effort went into raising awareness of the service across the county, and that has continued to the present time. Our focus continues to be on engaging with local people and community fundraising, and we never fail to be inspired and amazed by all our fantastic supporters.



Brixham air ambulance by Gerry Gleadall
2 new Devon air ambulance helicopters

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