It started as a weekend adventure for surf lifesavers doing aerial beach patrols and rescues. But fast forward 35 years and CareFlight can proudly say it has saved thousands of lives and has evolved into one of the largest and most sophisticated aero medical services in the world.
When Ashley van de Velde reflects on his lifelong journey from the first CareFlight crewman to CEO of one of Queensland’s most trusted and iconic brands, the pride and passion is laid bare for all to see.
Mr van de Velde has driven the growth of the organisation from a local, regional search and rescue service on the Gold Coast. He has steered it through plenty of stormy weather to become a major air-based medical emergency rescue and training service provider operating throughout Queensland and beyond the Asia Pacific.
But he’s quick to acknowledge that CareFlight’s transformation would not have been possible without an extraordinary team of dedicated and highly skilled professionals whose collective and primary focus was to provide world class care to patients in need.
Since 1981, CareFlight has airlifted more than 43,000 patients from all parts of Queensland.
“CareFlight was originally formed by Gold Coast community and surf lifesaving members and I had been involved with surf lifesaving from the age of 13,” Mr van de Velde said.
“I was working in the Water Police at the time and when the opportunity came to work full time in helicopters, I literally jumped at it.
“We started doing beach patrols, rescues and resuscitation but gradually over time we realised there was a more pressing need to get away from the beach and fly to more distant and less accessible parts of south-east Queensland and northern New South Wales to retrieve patients.
“In the early days there were a lot of road accidents as well as farm accidents and plane crashes. We would be called by the local police from the scene and after a few years the ambulance service would also task us.
“We would fly from our base at Carrara and later Bilinga to Southport Hospital and pick up an emergency doctor from the roof of the building or the hockey field across the road and be on our way to the scene within 15 minutes of getting the call.”
CareFlight’s first Medical Director, emergency physician Dr Phil Kay was a key driving force in the relatively new concept of aero medical services and using a helicopter to provide lifesaving care in the first “golden hour” after a patient had been involved in a serious accident or incident.
Many of Dr Kay’s colleagues viewed him as a ‘cowboy’ but his independent and resilient character enabled him to stand his ground and stay focussed on an emergency services innovation which was making a major difference and began saving countless lives.
“Because we could get to a scene much quicker by air we could provide critical and early medical intervention and that was more important 20 and 30 years ago because there was little pain relief available from attending ambulance officers and emergency care wasn’t as advanced,” said Dr Kay who is the most experienced private sector emergency medicine specialist in Australia.
“I’m proud to say CareFlight helped to significantly change the face of health care in this country and wrote much of the text book on emergency medical care in the field.”
Mr van de Velde said the influence of Dr Kay and his successor as Medical Director, Dr Geoff Ramin, were vital in gaining CareFlight’s credibility in the medical and emergency services community while they also played a pivotal role in enabling CareFlight to become accredited with the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.
“We always knew what we were there for, what our primary role was – to get the medical team to the patient in the quickest most efficient manner. It’s so important in remote and country areas where I know our work has always been greatly valued,” said Mr van de Velde.
“But we broke new ground when we progressed to the model where we had our own accredited emergency doctors on board who were also trained as aircrewmen.”
Dr Ramin said CareFlight was a global pioneer in the evolution of trauma management using helicopters as the transport platform.
“We developed an approach which was a combination of medical skills, pragmatism and common sense while also building a capability to the system so we could treat as many patients as possible,” he said.
“In the formative years we would often be landing by the side of the road to attend to bad traffic accidents, especially on the Pacific Highway. There would be a number of bad entrapment cases where it would take rescuers sometime to extricate an occupant and as the doctor you would crawl into the wreckage to manage the medical care of the patient.”
The other significant factor in the growth of CareFlight was the quality of the first pilots that CareFlight recruited – most with a military background. The original Chief Pilot Richard Blackwell and the longest-serving Chief Pilot Peter Spurgin laid the platform for an unblemished safety record with high safety standards and strong risk management protocols that remain today.
“Richard, ‘Spurg’ and all of our other pilots were just outstanding. The flying and navigation could be really challenging especially in bad weather and this was in an era when you didn’t have GPS and sophisticated avionics to guide you to a site,” Mr van de Velde said.
“A weather check in our early days used to be a case of ringing the local policeman where we were supposed to be landing and asking him to go outside to see if the skies were clear enough to see the stars.”
A game changer for CareFlight was the decision by RACQ to climb on board as naming rights partner in 1993. They have remained CareFlight’s longest serving partner, with its distinctive logo emblazoned on the rescue choppers for 23 of its 35 years.
Mr van de Velde labels RACQ “an extraordinary partner and a major part of the CareFlight story with synergies that have been perfect.” He said CareFlight couldn’t have found a better fit for a partner with the shared vision of commitment to community service and saving lives.
“Even though many aspects of CareFlight have changed and evolved the one thing that has been the biggest constant is the patient focus,” he said.
“The biggest reward for everyone who works for CareFlight is when the patients come back to the bases to say thank you or send in a letter. To know you’ve helped save a life is enormously rewarding.
“What’s also special are the long and strong connections we’ve had with regional communities around Queensland and the support and donations that they have provided and continue to provide to maintain their local service.”
CareFlight’s current Chief Medical Officer, Dr Allan Mackillop said the company had undergone enormous change, growing from airlifting two or three missions a week to performing almost 4000 patient rescues and transfers each year.
“People can now get help all over Queensland and remembering that we’ve been going 35 years and the fact the population of Australia has probably doubled in that time particularly on the coastal fringe of Queensland which is where the majority of the helicopter rescue services are based,” Dr Mackillop said.
“I must say it’s been an absolute pleasure to see that rural and remote Queensland areas are increasingly serviced by our helicopter rescue service and to see us extend our service to those far flung areas where the need has always been great but is probably even greater now.”
While community donations provides one-third of CareFlight’s annual budget of $22million, the company has also had to grow and evolve as a business to ensure that it remains financially viable.
The diversified business has included mergers with other services in Mount Isa and on the Sunshine Coast; the launch of CareFlight Retrieval Medicine which supplies doctors and medical crew to all rotary and fixed-wing aero-medical services throughout Queensland; the opening of the HEMS Training Academy which provides specialist aviation, rescue and aero medical training; and the partnership with French company Thales with its high-tech Full Flight simulator which is the most advanced civil helicopter simulator on the market and the first of its kind in Australia.
Mr van de Velde said all of the business pillars are designed to underpin CareFlight’s core business of providing a community helicopter rescue service throughout Queensland and saving lives – anyone, anywhere, anytime.