SPECIAL REPORT: East Anglian Air Ambulance celebrates 10th anniversary

SINCE the East Anglian Air Ambulance was launched, its crews have been on about 10,000 rescue missions, helping thousands of people when they need it most by providing specialist care at the scenes of emergencies and getting patients to hospital fast.

SINCE the East Anglian Air Ambulance was first launched, its crews have been on about 10,000 rescue missions, helping thousands of people when they need it most by providing specialist care at the scenes of emergencies and getting patients to hospital fast.

As well as clocking up a vast amount of mileage over the region, the ambulance team has come a long, long way in its own development.

"In 10 years, the charity has grown from flying one helicopter one day a week to operating two highly-advanced, well-equipped aircraft which serve the populations of four counties 365 days a year," said Simon Gray, its chief executive.

That costs money. This year alone it needs to raise about �3.5m to fund the service it provides.

"We're proud to have reached this milestone and deeply grateful to everyone in the region who has helped us reach it. Without the public's help, we wouldn't be able to operate our life-saving service," added Mr Gray.

After the launch of a fundraising appeal in 2000, the first air ambulance started flying in January 2001, covering Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire (the service was extended to Bedfordshire in 2007).

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Initially, that first aircraft, a Bolkow 105D, only flew on Fridays, but from April 2001 it flew five days a week and by July 2001 it was operating every day. The aircraft was later replaced by a more advanced helicopter, the BK117, with a second BK117 also joining the fleet.

Known as Anglia One and Two, they continue to look after the region today, with the Bolkow 105D as a back-up. They cover 5,500 square miles with a 3.2 million population that rises markedly in the summer.

Anglia One, based usually at Norwich international airport, looks after Norfolk and Suffolk; Anglia Two, usually stationed at RAF Wyton, near Huntingdon, covers Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire. The air ambulance team leases the aircraft from Sterling Helicopters at Norwich airport.

On average four emergency missions are flown each day, and about six in 10 call-outs are to road accidents. Other types of emergencies include farming and equestrian accidents and medical emergencies, such as heart attacks.

The service is especially important in rural areas, where people can be miles and miles away from a hospital when disaster strikes.

Mr Gray said: "If you think about this region, the only neurosurgery unit for serious head trauma is in Addenbrooke's in Cambridge.

"If somebody is riding on Holkham beach and they fall off their horse, a land ambulance would have to drive to Holkham and then walk to the patient.

"The patient would then be taken to the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital or Queen Elizabeth Hospital, King's Lynn, by land ambulance, and then transferred to Addenbrooke's. The time between the fall and the patient getting specialist treatment could be many hours, and that could mean anything from serious head injury to death.

"But our team could make the decision to go straight to Addenbrooke's from Holkham beach, which is probably just a 40-minute journey."

In the past, he said, the air ambulance had been more of a retrieval service. But the focus was changing.

By September, the air ambulance hopes to employ full-time doctors to work alongside the service's critical care paramedics all the time.

At present, the service relies on volunteer doctors, with Anglia One having a doctor three to four days a week and the emergency medical charity Magpas providing a volunteer doctor for Anglia Two six or seven days a week.

Mr Gray said: "We are trying to take accident and emergency to the incident by taking highly-trained clinicians to the scene.

"We love our paramedics; they are superb and highly trained and very used to the nature of the role. But the doctors can intervene at a higher level, and I think the additional experience for the doctors of actually seeing the nature of the trauma in the field will also help them greatly in treating the patient, rather than if the first time they see the patient is in A&E."

Mr Gray also said the air ambulance was setting up a clinical centre to train its paramedics and doctors together.

And it planned to take part in a new control centre system in which paramedics and doctors took some of the more serious emergency calls instead of ambulance control to help decide on the best use of the air ambulance.

Helping to establish a network of lit helipads at the region's major hospitals is also on the agenda so that Anglia One and Two can fly patients between hospitals outside daytime flying hours.

Gazing into the future, the air ambulance team wants to operate the service by night as well as during the day.

To do so, the helicopters would need to be kitted out with between �250,000 and �500,000 of night-time flying equipment to help pilots spot dangerous obstacles such as cables, fences and ditches in the dark, and further funds would be needed to pay for extra staffing costs for a round-the-clock service.

Mr Gray said: "Our tenth anniversary gives us an opportunity to celebrate what we have achieved together so far and prepare for the next 10 years. We want to take the service to new levels and to help save more lives.